The case for returning to the office so you can collaborate

When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser urged the federal government to either occupy its space or clear out, she touched a nerve. Debate over whether people should mostly be in the office or telework often centers on one issue: Which is better for collaboration and team cohesion? Both agencies and contractors are wrestling with the same questions. Here, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin is presenting two points of view. In this interview, Temin is hearing from Paul Smith, a long-time federal sales executive, who has worked with nearly every agency at one point in his career. Also look for Temin’s interview with Mika Cross, a former federal manager, who specializes professionally in workplace issues and champions the need for better collaboration tools for a largely remote or teleworking workforce.

Interview transcript:

Paul Smith
Hey, Tom, and it’s great to be here with you, in person.

Tom Temin
We should point that out very clearly, in person. And you are one who comes down basically, on the idea of people let’s get back together again, tell us more.

Paul Smith
Yeah, well I kind of operate from the standpoint of today we have it is what it is. And it was what it was. And we’ll probably never go back to what it was. But where we are today, is a full pendulum swing from what I believe is necessary for real collaboration. An open source guy for most of my career. I understand that collaboration happens in teams across functional folks getting together and ideating together and bashing things out on a whiteboard or at a conference table, or wherever that may be. Execution can happen almost anywhere. But when ideas need to happen, it seems to me that the energy and reading body language happens better in 3D than in 2D.

Tom Temin
And in your long period of your career with Red Hat, we can name that company a nice outfit. You also probably had to work with agencies, in convincing them of the values and virtues of open source because it wasn’t widely understood back then. Let’s say 20 years ago.

Paul Smith
Back in the day.

Tom Temin
Back in the day. And so did you also find that convincing agency customers was a good thing in person?

Paul Smith
Indeed. I think it’s just human experiences, building trust and relationships happens over time. I really astrue an old model of salesmanship, which was you sit in a car dealership as an example. And the salesman says, trust me, I was like, OK, fine. But trust is something that’s actually built over time. And humans interact in a lot of ways that require, promises made and promises kept over time. But right now, I’m getting head nods from you that I can see verbally. And noncommunication skills it says, OK, you’re buying into this. So with agencies, it’s building that trust over time. And mostly that’s done from presence. It’s being at the table, it’s being at a conference, it’s being on stage with somebody. It’s doing philanthropic work through maybe some of many of the associations like [Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA)]. And you build those relationships.

Tom Temin
Yes, those organizations have been working hard to get back to the in person event pretty steadily.

Paul Smith
Indeed. And I just saw out at the Consumer Electronics Show, that Don Upson and his crew had a great showing out there. And people were very enthusiastic to get back and just get belly to belly, so to speak.

Tom Temin
Interesting. Now, the devil’s advocate says that, well, we have Zoom, we have Teams, we have these collaborative platforms with everybody looking kind of not quite at you. But where their camera is not. Why can’t those substitute for the in person, because you can still see the people you’re speaking with?

Paul Smith
Well, they can. And I’m not an advocate of saying we’re going back to one full swing of the pendulum, one way or the other. We’ll use Zoom as kind of a generic. Because there’s Google Meets, and Teams and all these other avenues that have these video type of presence with each other. But I believe they should be a supporting character, not the main character. And look, the hybrid workplace has been around forever. I remember being a young salesperson, we used conference calls when video conferencing came about. It was a great way to connect with folks from outside of the cities. But going forward, it just doesn’t work. It’s a 2D type of experience. So actually, it’s a great supporting character, but it shouldn’t be the main character. Hard to build culture, when everyone is always dispersed.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Paul Smith. He’s a retired federal sales executive, most recently with Red Hat. And let me ask you this, too. The idea of bringing on new people. In the case of a contractor, it could be new business development people, new salespeople, or in the case of an agency, just any sort of new employee. And sometimes those new people get only sporadic or zero contact with the people they’re going to be working with. What’s your sense of how that should happen?

Paul Smith
So there’s a lot of debate going on right now. You see Disney, you see Apple coming out with mandates to get back to the office. And there seems to be, perhaps, a battle between the Generation Zer’s and maybe the baby boomers like myself or the Generation Xer’s. The 40s and 50s somethings. And in fact, I actually look at it more of a father figure. Someone that cares about the family, cares about the individual, cares about personal growth. And I was just reading in Forbes magazine and I’ll quote this. In this article, they said, especially for these the Gen Zer’s, 23-24 year olds. If they graduated during COVID, this hope of getting into the real world, so to speak, never really happened. They’ve been in a virtual world. So the quote says, “for young adults, going to the office, it has a positive social benefit. You meet new people, make friends and build a network of alliances that could help you through your career”. Well, they’re all missing that.

They don’t have that ad hoc type of ability to walk up and down the aisle. My office door is always open unless I was in conference. So people across the organization whether they were in sales, finance, legal, partner, customer support. Could all say, hey, do you have a minute? And you made that access possible. There is a wall that goes up, I believe in this virtual world, that says I am not accessible. God, Paul, you’re the senior vice president of this organization. 700 people, I can’t bother you. And in fact, it’s incumbent on the leadership to make themselves available. Much harder to do in a virtual environment. And I must say, too, on that subject, some people think that the bosses want to back in the office so they can watch them. Guess what, they’re watching you more now because of all the digital technology. Teams has a red light, yellow light, green light. Depending on if your cursor is moving, they can tell if you’re away from your desk. Big Brother is here, they’re watching your [Customer Relationship Management (CRM)], they’re watching your emails. It’s like the stuff that managers are doing now is more of a micromanagement, huge data analysis type of motion, versus extending trust. Watching the big numbers, watching to see what’s going on with customer experience and so forth. But actually setting a vision and letting them go. Much different experience for these young kids. I worry about them as a dad, as I worry about my kids.

Tom Temin
So if you’re working at home, you need two mice. One mouse that controls your computer, the other one to push that mouse around, when you’re actually out walking the dog.

Paul Smith
I saw something on Amazon. They’re selling these devices now to move your mouse a little bit when your away. What if you want to go to the bathroom? All of a sudden the red light goes on, it’s like, I just don’t want to have to talk about that.

Tom Temin
And beyond that there is the spontaneous communication, the quick meeting. I find personally that if you have to pick up the phone, or go to Slack, or go to email, something not worth a video meeting. But just a quick communication, you sometimes just skip it. Because of the friction involved, versus poking your head out the door popping up above your cube wall and saying, “Hey, George, X, Y, Z.”

Paul Smith
Well, there’s a lot of conversations going around when i’ve heard called digital exhaustion. I had lunch with an old friend of mine, an old red hatter who is now over at MuleSoft. And he was talking to me about his calendar. And it’s from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. There’s no on and off switch. I said what happens when you wake up in the morning? What’s the emotion when you take a look at that calendar? He says it’s a little bit of a sigh, and then you go. And what’s missing, I got a term from another millennial actually, I love it. It’s called serendipity deprivation. So those things that you’re talking about, which are when you’re in an office situation. There are dynamics there you don’t plan for. There’s the ad hoc meeting at the kitchen, at the at the coffee machine, walking down the aisles somebody comes in, you have conversations you weren’t planning for. And it’s like, oh, you have that aha moment. It’s like, I didn’t think of it that way. Let’s grab a bite. Well, you don’t do that digitally. Now, digitally. I’ve read a book many years ago called “Crucial Conversations. And it was really about when things really matter. How do you have these type of conversations.” An email, as an example for us older folks was like, never meant to be a medium for dialogue. It was a medium say, OK, got your information, follow up, get back to you on Tuesday. Now, we want to do everything and have dialogue that way. I try to coach my kids. I’ve got a couple of 30 somethings in late 20 something. Use this mobile device called an iPhone, like it was originally meant to be used. Call them.

Tom Temin
Well, I think talking on the telephone is something of an anathema to that generation. But to get back to that point of bringing along with people new to the workforce. I can remember the most influential mentor I ever had in my business life. What I learned from this man, he died a couple of years ago and I actually still miss him. I still checked in with him from time to time, even now that I’m at my age. I learned something about journalism and that sort of thing from him. But so much more about comportment and bearing and how to express yourself and organizational maneuvering and so on. It’s so many nontangibles that could not be gleaned, except by being in the presence of day after day.

Paul Smith
Well look, early childhood development is probably a great analogy to all this thing as well. There’s nonverbal communications that you get from watching leaders in your company, your organization, your agency under pressure. You’re like, oh, talk about comportment. It’s like I was really amazed at the way she or he handled this situation. Calm, cool and collective or guns ablaze. And from that you take, well, I want to be just like that person, or I don’t want to be like that. And these are nonverbal communications that we learn at an early age. We learn expressions of motion, and so forth. It’s not from reading the book, but it’s from actually observing, and actually experiencing. Again, 3D world versus 2D world. Psychologists are having a field day with this right now.

Tom Temin
I guess the question is, would you raise your child from babyhood on Teams? The answer would be, hardly.

Paul Smith
Well, let’s talk about that. So I love this thing, too, because a lot of our younger professionals right now are getting into child rearing. So do you give them a tablet, or an iPad and say, make yourself smart? Or do you go home at night, and do you read to them? Now we know from lots of data, that when you read to your children, they pick up a couple of things. First of all, they pick up vocabulary. Because you’re just reading books, they don’t really understand what they’re getting exposed to words. You are there with them physically. So they have all these other senses. They have vision with you, they have touch with you, they have this smell of you, your scent. I can still remember my mom’s perfume, my dad’s you’re cologne. And all these things come together. And that’s how we actually get our kids exposed to a lot of different things. But they have these experiences that they’re not going to get from a tablet.

Tom Temin
All right, so to bring this around again. Your message to Muriel Bowser would be then, nope. We’re going to keep the space and get back together.

Paul Smith
Well, I would hope that the federal agencies realize a lot of things that companies are realizing. I just saw yesterday’s paper. Bob Iger from Disney said, OK, I’m back in charge. I love you. Look, Disney is a benevolent dictatorship. That means he’s a father that loves his family, love his individuals. But they are a creative pool. And he says I’m gonna have you eat your vegetables. You may not like it, but you’re going to love me in a couple years and this creative team has got to get together. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where the culture happens. So there’s going to be a mix, I believe, of strong leaders saying let’s reestablish our value system, what is good for our family, our corporation, our agency. And from there, we hope that people will understand the benefits. Now for early career professionals. It’s an absolute amazing opportunity for watching how leaders lead, looking at what you may want to be in a couple of years. And taking advantage of, as you mentioned, mentorships. I always love to have mentors. I had three executive coaches through my career. And I always love to be the mentor as well. I had many folks that I had multiple one on one relationships with in both static and nonstatic type of relationships. Just cool stuff. Basic word. It’s fun.

 

 

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