Clarity CEO Pat McDonagh muses on how his career would look today without the essential in-person moments.
U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak caused a bit of a stir this week by suggesting that young people in business would benefit from being in the office because face-to-face interactions, learning opportunities and relationships are essential to getting ahead in the workplace. I agree with much of what he said but this isn’t just about being in the office. It’s about any opportunities to see people face to face and build relationships, and obviously travel is enormously important within this, too.
What’s the alternative? I thought I’d consider what my career (and life) would look like if I hadn’t had those opportunities to work in an office and travel. Here’s what I found:
I’d have far fewer friends. Many of my best friends are from places I worked at some point during my career. Perhaps some of them would still be my friends if I met them on Zoom instead, but I would have never met many others had I not been in an office. In my early working years, we enjoyed lunch with a large group of colleagues from all over the office, talking about football or something similar most days and forming bonds that exist to this day even though our careers took very different paths from there.
I’d know a lot less. The stuff you pick up from just listening to people and informally chatting is incredible. I once expressed an opinion on a piece of technology we were using to a consultant, who then seconded me on to a project team, which set the tone for the next three years of my working life. It was a huge and formative learning curve that wouldn’t have been available but for my big mouth in that busy office.
I probably wouldn’t have the job I love today. Apart from the fact that I wouldn’t be nearly as capable or experienced, I wouldn’t have had that conversation with the recruiting director when the role running business travel at Thomas Cook Co-operative Travel was available. Of course, I went through a full recruitment process, but I wouldn’t have even applied had we not sat next to each other at a charity dinner.
I wouldn’t have made the contacts that matter. We’re building a sports travel business at Clarity, which complements our business travel operation. During the pandemic, it’s been a godsend. It’s no coincidence that the senior hires within that team are all ex-colleagues of mine from years ago. These are people who I didn’t work with on a day-to-day basis but knew because we shared an office. Our competitors would have very much liked to recruit these great professionals, but did not.
I wouldn’t have the social skills needed to do my job. You learn this over time, in busy environments and, through travel, new destinations with diverse cultures. I improve as a human being and a professional with every new experience. These are enriching and invaluable, and can’t be had from behind a keyboard.
I’m sure there are many more examples. And to be honest, with two young boys at home driving me around the bend during the summer holidays, the office has never been more attractive.
Maybe we’ll find some middle ground where technology better facilitates all of this, but it’s hard to imagine how life would have been without the office and my travels. I also think it would have been pretty dull and I would be the poorer for it, both financially and emotionally. I know, however, that a balance is necessary and there will be times when working from home makes sense. Indeed, many of our staff at Clarity now work from home or have a hybrid arrangement — accelerated by the pandemic but also because it is desirable for them. So, what’s the answer? Is there a right or wrong way of going about this? Perhaps it’s as simple as this:
• If the job can be done at home and the employee wants to do it there, then do everything you can to make it happen. There are huge benefits for many in doing this.
• If people prefer to be in an office, then they’re likely to be happy and productive only in that environment. Don’t underestimate the importance of this to many people. It’s powerful.
• Create opportunities for both of these groups to interact on a face-to-face basis whenever you can. You never know what might come of it.
• Get out and see the world. You never know what you might miss!
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