Over the years I have been a big and vocal advocate of digital solutions, so much so that I actually left the public sector in order to work on improving the way digital is done with local government. Digital genuinely has the potential to not only be the cheapest option of delivering many vital services to local people but actually the better option. Much talk is had on the former, with the latter taking the back seat.
One particular area I've discussed has been the way digital can improve internal communications. Whether it’s improving the way e-mail is delivered between teams, using social enterprise tools like Yammer or Slack to make cross-service communication easier and more efficient or whether it’s finding better ways to store information online so others can not only find it later but understand its context, the opportunities are huge.
The use of internal social network-style systems has a huge range of benefits. Adopting a publish-don’t-send culture ensures people start working aloud, sharing information and links, updating others on their work and encouraging others to take an interest in areas outside of their immediate concern. It encourages people to share early and share often, so issues or duplication can more easily be picked up by the crowd and addressed sooner rather than later.
It can also save significant amounts of time in the process. People are better able to find information and support, better able to access both of these things outside of their normal circles of influence, allow quicker and more streamlined communication between managers and their staff and can cut down on the amount of time spent in meetings which are held for their own sake.
The line from many of the companies behind the many digital solutions available is that if everyone types things out and shares publicly there is actually less need for physical meetings at all. Everyone is updated more easily and has the opportunity to add their own questions or points which can be addressed whenever is best, and the amount of random chatter can be limited to keep things focussed and on track.
In my experience, often there is nothing that beats a face to face meeting. Yes, we all overdo these sometimes; it’s very easy to fall into the habit of scheduling an hour to discuss something that should take nowhere near as long. People are familiar with the hour-long meeting. It feels official. It feels important. And it fills your diary wonderfully so you appear to be in demand and therefore important, or at least busy enough to be able to turn down competing meeting requests which interest you less.
That being said, when done well, in-person meetings can significantly solidify relationships between individuals and make sure things actually get done. The day I realised that people, not processes and rules, got things done was the day I started to make progress myself. If I e-mail someone I know they will receive it, I trust they will read it, I hope they will understand it and I wait for them to respond.
If I meet them in person however I am better able to gauge whether or not they actually understood my intent rather than just my words, can explain further if needed and can quickly build a rapport to encourage trust. I can look into their eyes and they into mine and find out where issues might arise as well as then discuss what to do about them
I appreciate that this is in no small part down to the sort of personality I have. I am a talker. I like little more than attacking a problem with a group of people and working together to discuss options before agreeing with them on the best solution.
Others prefer remote engagement only. They thrive through the clarty that a clearly worded e-mail or message can bring, and how they can deal with things in whatever they deem as the most appropriate levels of priority at the time.
Indeed, this is how many coders, programmers and people in the tech industry work. The very people building these tools and then selling them do so because they truly believe that they are offering a better way of working that everyone will sign up to if only they can approach it with an open mind. Get rid of face to face and create a quieter, more orderly workplace where people can focus more.
This approach is as wrong as the one it is trying to replace. It imposes a more introverted style of engagement on those who thrive on a more extroverted one, imposes an orderly approach when others thrive in chaos. It says it is right and the other is wrong, when in fact only the former is actually true.
A mature, effective workplace understands and values the differences in people, places and circumstances that inevitably evolve as people and work changes. It understands that in many situations a work-aloud policy is a good default, but sometimes this needs to be complemented by an offline discussion in person. It understands that everyone has natural preferences, and that by meeting these differences effectively they will garner far more from their staff than they ever would by imposing one style over another upon them.
With the exception of transactions (bookings, payments, information, etc…), which should all be done online, collaboration needs to be tackled using a range of tools and approaches. These should be decided upon based on the situation and people involved, and should themselves evolve over time. Digital by default is not digital to the point of exclusion.
Local government needs to better consider both of these sides of the coin rather than seeing one as the panacea of all ills. It needs to improve its culture of booking meetings with little thought as to whether or not they are needed and encourage shorter, action focussed updates either in person or online. And it needs to do this at the top, as well as the bottom. In my experience, there are plenty of senior-level meetings which could be trimmed from the diary, or at least improved drastically.
After all, as one very smart person mentioned at UK Gov Camp this year, we are paid to make progress, not to be busy.