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Why We Need to Nix Zoom To Nurture Our National Economy

80% of the Australian economy is now in the business of delivering services.

So, a question in self-interest:

"Is working by zoom good for the health of the services economy?"

I have spent a bit of time thinking about this now, and my conclusion is, unfortunately, no.

Hoping services stay competitive globally while we work apart by zoom is like expecting a tourism recovery through Google Streetview.

Don't get me wrong, work by zoom is definitely good for some types of service work. Alas, it's miserable for the other kind of teamwork we'll need if we're to ensure the future of our services-driven economy.

I know the corporates are out there talking up their wonderful new-found flexi arrangements. But I mean, they would, wouldn't they? They are not about to admit a

drop in productivity and tank their own stock price.

So I think perhaps now it's time to look ahead and evaluate the nature of work.

We have to wean ourselves off the big Z and get back to working in teams, face to face.

By now, you will have had moments on zoom where you think - actually, that was better than the in-person equivalent. Maybe it was a mercifully short project meeting. Or a doctors' appointment that was a 5-minute phone call instead of a 2 hour round trip.

Or, if you're a dictator, you might like a bit of directing people what to do!

Actually, the best productivity gain I've seen in lockdown was the replacement of in-person Parent-Teacher meetings with video interviews. It was perfect - all the benefit of a quick check-in but without the hours running around between classrooms in the rain.

However, I bet you've also all been on a video conference and seen the bored faces. Maybe you were even texting on the sly (sorry, multitasking).

When you're a facilitator, it's all demoralising. If you're face to face and you see people dropping their attention, you have perhaps 20 different ways you can get the group back to attention on their task.

This is important because groups really don't like to do work. It takes quite a bit of corralling to hold their focus.

It's hard in real life groups but it's almost impossible on a video conference.

Where you could moderate your voice or catch someone's eye in real life, on zoom you're working with one hand tied behind your back.

Ask anyone joining a new team or someone new trying to get results. Ask a sales professional how they find doing big deals by videoconference. It's just really hard.

What determines the difference between the stuff that works on zoom and the stuff that doesn't?

Whether zoom works well depends on whether the work to be done was technical work or adaptive work.

This distinction comes from researchers Heifetz and Linsky, who categorise work as either technical or adaptive like this:

  • With technical challenges, you know the business goal, you have a good idea of the solution and you have a work process in mind for the team (how to get there). This is the stuff that works well on zoom. 

  • Adaptive work, on the other hand, is where teams have to work out the way forward themselves. It's where there's no existing solution and the nature of the challenge is to invent the way forward.

Adaptive work is the challenging work of leaders, high-performance teams and innovative, creative thinkers - and salespeople.

The adaptive teamwork moment from Apollo 13 to the A-Team

Are you old enough to remember the A-team - with Murdoch and Face - and BA Baraccus? The absolute best bit of every episode was where they had to work out a plan and use all of their brains and teamwork to look around at what was there to use and then come up with a creative solution to their weekly bad-guy problem.

That's the adaptive teamwork.

And more recently do you remember the scene in Apollo 13 where the ground team has to work together to come up with the answer to a life and death problem?

They had to create something magic together - in real life.

More adaptive teamwork.

Thought experiment: Imagine Apollo 13 had its crisis (an oxygen leak into space) and the ground technical team was only available by zoom. Would they have come up with their duct-tape rescue idea?

No chance. They had to be there together - with the parts on the table. Because adaptive work is hopelessly suited to working apart by zoom.

Why am I labouring this point about adaptive work?

Because when you step back and look at what is working in the real world, it turns out that the stuff that works on zoom is technical. Like regulation meetings, project check-ins.

Make no mistake, technical work is important. But, like it or not, adaptive work is the value driver of advanced service economies so we have to be careful not to let the zoom tail wag the dog.

Adaptive teamwork is what makes Australian services competitive against low-cost labour markets

Adaptive work is where Australia's services sector can and must win because technical work is ultimately far too easily shipped offshore - or handed off to new capital like robots and AI.

This offshoring is already happening - ask any web developer who used to sell web development package for $50,000 or maybe $100,000 and is now competing with someone who can technically code the lot from India for maybe $5,000.

The only route to staying competitive is the adaptive work.

If you agree with me so far, you might be wondering why this might be the case: what is it that makes adaptive work so hard to do by zoom and remote working?

Margaret Wheatley’s famous model of leadership might help explain why. 

In her “green line” model, Wheatley points out the work in all organisations that is often massively underappreciated but essential: the work below the green line.

Above the green line is systems and structure and process. Below the green line is all relationships, identity, information - the "soft stuff."

To step away from work, maybe we could look at travel above and below the green line.

The world of travel above the green line would be where you look at your travel map and how to get from A to B.

It is the logistics, the route, the timing, the map.

Below the green line in the world of travel - now that's where the real magic of travel is - meeting people, accidental discovery, using travel to find more about yourself.

That's adaptive stuff.

Likewise, back in the workplace, above the green line - that's your technical work. Pop that meeting on zoom, save the time of travel and unnecessary meetings - Bob’s your uncle.

Great adaptive work though needs the real presence of teams because by its nature it requires serendipity, chance conversations, insight, personality, perspectives.

That below the green line stuff - that's your adaptive work - building relationships, making information flow and innovation reveal itself, building trust in teams. And so on.

That kind of work has to come through more authentic interaction - and, dare I say it...

Physical, face-to-face, back-in-the-office contact.

Even the introverts in a group doing real adaptive work will admit that flowing, below-the-green-line - work, while somewhat painful (for them - not the extraverts, of course) is hugely valuable for creating better plans and more creative solutions. And ultimately, better business outcomes.

So before we all get too comfortable working by zoom, we might need to consider whether we have a vested interest in making sure we don't get too caught up in technical work.

I hope this darn bat flu passes fast so we can get back to working in live teams. Because Australia isn't going to create world-class services innovation and leadership over zoom.

The services sector now depends on building adaptive workflows back at the office

Otherwise, we'll all be working in technical work mode and competing directly against low-cost economies.

Which economies might they be? You already know. And how do you rate our chances of holding our edge in advanced services if technical low-cost services work is what we are relying on?

So if you like the idea of sticking with travel by Streetview and working remotely by zoom on technical work, good for you. We might have a few more years up our sleeves.

But I can't wait to get stuck back into proper, high-value, adaptive work - face to face.

Because I love it when a plan comes together...

Good Luck!

© Matthew Braithwaite-Young, 2020

Matt is founder and principal of Turning Leaf, a strategic consulting firm. Matt has 25 years' experience in marketing strategy including client-side leadership roles at blue-chip firms Unilever and Diageo, and the last 15 years as an independent consultant. Matt has worked with large multinationals such as LVMH, Veolia and Kia, local giants such as Lendlease and the Federal Government. And his favourite work is helping local SMEs, family businesses and start-ups (the real engine room of the Australian economy).

You read this far. Good on you! Give me a shout - it's been too long, and you obviously have good taste.


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