A conversation I had recently reminded me of my office when I lived in Doha.
The conversation was not about that. My brain just works in weird ways.
The office was pretty standard corporate fare. Nothing special about it other than having one made you special.
At first, I was so happy to have my own office. You can’t imagine. It meant that the constant struggle to secure meeting rooms… to kick people out of said meeting rooms if their meetings ran over… to haggle over who needed the room more… that struggle was over. Step into my office.
That joy didn’t last long of course because you will always need bigger rooms. Your assistant will need you to opine on whether we should do the meeting in our building or head office and so forth.
Also, being in an office meant you weren’t out on the floor. It meant you missed the cookies someone baked unless someone brought you one… you missed the ridiculous incident with the paperclip that everyone now has as a shared joke… only it’s not really funny in the retelling. And you missed someone rushing out of the office in floods of tears.
And all these things matter.
They matter because they happened to the people you manage. They are the context in which they spend their day, and you need to know. And if you are not there, you don’t. Add Covid and working from home to this mix and the urgency and need to work out how to work out what’s going on becomes even stronger.
I didn’t know about Covid then, of course.
But I knew that somehow the frosted glass separating my desk from the office outside became a practical barrier that needed to be overcome somehow.
And before you say, “Just go sit with them”, the solution is incomplete because not all of my folks sat together. Different buildings. Different cities. More recently, different continents and time zones. And of course, you travel to spend time with them all. To spend real time together. To get to know them and, if you do your job right, to observe their context. The dynamics, the unspoken energy, the camaraderie or lack thereof. The disturbance in the force, perhaps.
To observe and understand the context in which people work. Because you can’t manage or lead without understanding what things look and feel and sound like to the people doing the doing.
While I was sitting in that office of mine, by the way, I became very good at recognising people’s gait. My office had a glass wall facing into the bull pen. It was clear at the top and bottom and frosted in the middle. That meant that I saw shadows and feet. And the top of Eghe’s head. Nobody else was tall enough to be visible above the frosting. But I had a very clear view of people from the ankle down.
The first thing I noticed is how noticeable this is, even when you are not looking for it.
I would see people coming in my direction, I could see people going to the photocopier room and the supply cupboard, the office next door or the exit. I would see people’s shoe choices. Who polished their shoes and who wore funky socks. I could see who walks pigeon-toed and who rushed to the front of their shoe, cramming their feet forward as if that would get them places faster.
I came to recognise people’s walk and came to notice when they walked differently. Slower, perhaps? Tired? Weary? Laden down with documents?
And I noticed and remembered all that without realising, at first, that I was noticing and remembering. I don’t particularly care about shoes (I know, I know, but I don’t even get the shoe thing. I am not always very good at being a woman). And I most definitely don’t notice body language enough when there is a plethora of stimuli. But in this case, there wasn’t. And even though I wasn’t conscious of paying attention, I was and I did.
I am telling you this for two reasons, each separately and independently significant.
The first is that the context you are put into constrains the information you have access to. And with the best intentions in the world, you can only do the best in the circumstances. So keep reflecting on the circumstances because you may need to change them. And you definitely need to be mindful of them.
The second is the context in which your teams do the work you ask of them is a rich tapestry of ever-changing factors that go beyond the workplace. You need a natural and unobtrusive way to be alert to its realities and changes. And in a world where you can’t be physically there for every part of it because of geography, time zones and location considerations, but also because you can only be in one place at a time so ‘being there’ was never going to be the answer… in this world of asynchronous communications, distributed workforces and physical separation, you can’t notice that someone has a spring in their steep today. You can’t notice their scuffed shoes dragging a bit more than normal today.
So, what do you notice instead? And if the answer is, “Well my context as a manager is such that I expect my teams to tell all when I take a moment at the start of the meeting to benevolently ask them how they are,” then my answer to that is… oh boy.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
Leda is also a published author – her first book, Bankers Like Us: Dispatches from an Industry in Transition, is available to order here.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!