Managing a team split between home and the office? Here’s what you need to know

It is noteworthy that, in the nineteenth century, one specific working environment developed into a hugely popular subject for painters: the artist’s studio.

Archetypal paintings of studios showed high ceilinged rooms with large windows, views over neighbouring rooftops, sparse furniture, messy tables covered in tubes of paint and half-finished masterpieces propped up against the walls. There was one additional factor that particularly enticed the collective imagination: there was no one in the studio apart from the artist.

At exactly the time when more and more people were being gathered into ever larger offices and experiencing for the first time all the attendant compromises and constrictions, there grew a craving for paintings of an alternative utopia, a place of work consolingly free of the damnable presence of the colleague.

For those of us who have spent the last year working from home, this longing for the independent life of the artist may seem strange, or it may feel even more intensely desirable. Some people have enjoyed the sense of freedom and autonomy which remote working has provided. They have embraced the pleasurably aloof position of the artist in their studio, turning spare bedrooms into private spaces of work and contemplation, free from unwanted interruptions.

Others feel strangely disconnected from the day-to-day reality of what work once meant for them. They miss the energetic bustle and collective sense of purpose which an office provides, not to mention a more bounded space outside of the home, comfortably distant from unexpected childcare commitments or the nettlesome distractions of noisy flatmates.

With team members potentially leaning in different directions, balancing everyone’s preferences can pose a serious challenge for managers. If your team is split between continuing to work from home and returning to the office, there’s a concern that the environment might become divisive. A sense of togetherness and motivation may be the prime casualty of this new, unexpected arrangement.

Maurits Kalff, psychologist and faculty member at The School of Life, believes that it’s important to see the potential for positive change within this moment of uncertainty. “The pandemic brought up many questions about the boundaries between work and the rest of our life,” he says. “It led people to wonder what they really wanted and it caused a lot of confusion. But the one thing we do know about working from home is that it provided everyone with a lot more autonomy. People were able to manage their own time more and we know that tends to make people much happier.”

“So, whilst at the moment, there’s a certain amount of ambiguity about what our new working arrangements might look like, I would say: perhaps the answer is to structure things more carefully. This is a great moment for managers to have conversations which we don’t always find time for. A chance to define what the good bits of remote working were, and what the not-so-good bits were and then create an entirely new structure for your company. One which learns from this experience and builds on it.”

It may be that certain changes in our working patterns, the greater flexibility which the pandemic has required, were inevitable; a consequence of all-conquering digital tools rewriting workplace conventions. Yet, there’s a lingering sense that something might have gone missing as a result of this step into a virtually mediated future. It’s possible to ask whether, in harnessing the option of Zoom calls and instant messaging, we’ve lost sight of how good it can feel to be in the physical presence of your co-workers, despite the many accompanying frustrations and compromises such proximity requires. For managers especially, it’s hard to escape the fact that training and support are much easier to provide in-person.

“It’s a tricky situation,” says Raul Aparici, Faculty Lead at The School of Life. “It’s important to recognise that a mixed environment – with some in the office and some at home – won’t always be ideal. You have to handle people differently depending on their individual needs and it’s important to be open-minded if you receive suggestions or requests for different arrangements.”

“If you have a split team, some in the office, some at home. You have to think carefully about how those teams interrelate. It’s always easier to work with people right in front of you, but that means we have to be really deliberate and careful in how we manage these relationships. It’s a scenario that calls for a lot of emotional intelligence in how things are handled.”

Our problems with the collegial nature of work are compounded, as ever, by the implication that matters should be rather straightforward. Our inevitable difficulties are aggravated by notions that offices are at heart giant families, that colleagues can be friends, that honesty is rewarded and every disagreement will quickly blow over.

The reality, at once painful and comforting in its sheer inevitability, is that office agonies are impossible to avoid. The most reliable solution is to equip ourselves with those emotional skills which help everyone to negotiate those problems and even anticipate their arrival.

 

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