The thunderstorm-like noise of water beating down on a tin roof drowns out all conversation on my zoom call. Luckily it lasts only a minute or two, delivering me a pause in an otherwise always-on day. My parent’s beautiful lush green oasis in Wayanad, Kerala has been my place of work for a few weeks. The signal that the water tank is full and the pump needs to be put off is the short, sharp and noisy shower of overflowing water, sounding an alarm on our roof. That way water is not wasted, as it’s impossible to ignore the sound it makes and the pump is promptly switched off.
This daily routine of unplanned two-minute breaks in the middle of a workday got me thinking. The work I do has not changed, however, the environment that I am operating from has a drastic impact on the quality of my day. I am surrounded by nature. Clean air. The orchestra of birds begins at dawn in full crescendo and continues to play through the day. There are power cuts to navigate. The poor signal on the dongle and patchy Wi-Fi to juggle between and every so often the waterfall induced pause that I am forced to take. On one hand, my heart and mind are calmer. More connected to this beautiful world we live in. On the other poor connectivity and a host of tiny interruptions pose a bit of a problem.
It occurs to me that the blurred background on my online meeting or the little corner of my home that I chose to make visible to my work family sometimes shows more than it hides. We may all be working towards a common goal. Serving a common set of customers. Working with a set of skills that complement each other. But in a WFH world organisations cannot create and mould the environment from which we deliver and offer ourselves. This has been the secret sauce of culture building. Creating a tribe. The rituals and bonds of a shared workspace have been the glue that held people together for as long as we have shared a common place of work. And as I learned in the past few weeks my environment plays a huge role in determining how I show up at work and for work.
Spacious gardens, the back seat of a cat, cramped rooms, makeshift desks and more, make for the new office environment. In some cases, families fighting for space and bandwidth, in others living alone and fighting off loneliness. Each of us in corners of the world where we try and find the space to make our place in the work world. Dogs. Cats. Significant and insignificant others all crowd into our screens sometimes.
Suddenly I remember my days in boarding school. When I used to get there after a few days of feeling homesick I was swept up into the world of school. It’s routines and rituals. A new set of bonds and beliefs defined my world for as long as I was there. That’s what’s missing in the workplace. The context cannot be controlled or orchestrated that easily in a WFH environment.
We all show up to do our best but the backgrounds are different. As much as we try to make them similar my day at work is also determined by where I am, not just what I am doing. I remind myself to say tuned in to what’s going on in the background. Each of my team members and clients need me to stay in sync with their reality. Like the water falling on my roof that drowns out everything and forces me to pause for a minute or two, I must pause and check in with them.
The symphony of bird songs in the background comes back into my awareness. A way to nudge me to think of new ways to orchestrate this new online team experience. This week I was reminded to pay attention to what’s not visible as it plays such a big role on how we show up at work, while we WFH. Getting myself and my team comfortable with the background noise is going to be a really important part of our collective way forward.
Maybe there is much to be gained from this diversity. A lot has been written about the virtues and benefits of embracing diversity of all kinds. As we learn to navigate a new work world, thinking about ways to embrace this diversity of our physical workspace could be powerful.
With colleagues spread out across India and the world, the number of offices we have has suddenly multiplied manifold. The exposure, the influences, the source of creativity we can tap into have gone up considerably.
Like musicians in a jazz band, if we come together, unified by company culture and yet playing with the influences of the diversity of our homes, the sound promises to be new and inspiring. Like in Jazz, improvisation is an important part of the genre. There is a freedom for creative expression that jazz allows, producing a rich variety. This takes an exceptionally talented and skilled set of people who enjoy what they do. Organisations that will emerge winners will be those that learn how to embrace the different background noises and turn them into music.
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