Towards a different CIPA
I counted the weeks on the kitchen wall planner this morning. Fifteen weeks. Fifteen weeks since I said goodbye to the staff, Officers and others at CIPA and headed home. To obey social distancing. To work from home, because I can. To protect the NHS. To save lives. Oh, and to think. There has been a lot of thinking time. Sometimes too much thinking time, when I’m not having the best of days (thankfully rare). Generally, I have welcomed the thinking time. It is a precious commodity and, when you are leading a professional body as diverse and interesting as CIPA, there is lots to think about.
I have done a lot of thinking about the ‘new normal’. Enough to reject the term absolutely and to challenge those who use it about their understanding of it. They do not understand it. Some use it simply because it is a new business buzzword, and we know how much people love to use buzzwords. Most use it because they know something has changed but are unsure exactly what has changed or how the world will look post-COVID19. I reject it because the world of work is permanently evolving. There is no new. There is no normal. There is the future and it is our job to imagine what that might look like for CIPA.
I try to imagine the future based on the lessons I have learned. It is where I seem to differ from politicians. I prefer to learn in the moment and apply that learning to improve the moment, rather than let the moment pass and learn later. What have I learned?
I have learned that if you trust people to work remotely, with minimal supervision but with maximum attention on their wellbeing, they generally do well. They do even better when you invest a little in their remote workplaces, or homes as they like to call them, where you are able to. It is not always possible. Some CIPA staff live with parents or grandparents, or in small apartments where it is simply not possible to create the perfect working environment. They are coping brilliantly but I have learned that I should have known more about my people and we should have thought earlier about how we equip them to work remotely.
I have learned that, however well-equipped you are to work remotely, it is tough. We take for granted the relationships we build and maintain at work. I certainly took for granted that Bill was there to sort out my IT issues, Charlotte was there for a chat and a sense-check, Dwaine was there to bounce ideas off, Fran was there to talk to and Neil was there to make awful tea. And all my other CIPA people. I had no idea how important those relationships were to me. As great and productive as remote working is, I have learned, much to my surprise, I like being around people.
I have learned that using technology to facilitate Council meetings, committee meetings, seminars, etc., works. Actually, I have learned that it works better when everyone is remote, rather than a number sat around a meeting table, where microphones compete and acoustics struggle, with others ‘dialling in’, usually on telephones with variable signal strength. People seem more focussed and purposeful when they have not just suffered interminably long journeys on public transport and are not worrying about getting away for the next meeting. That said, I miss these people too. They might not miss me but I know they miss meeting and socialising with each other because they tell me so.
I have learned that CIPA has an important role in supporting its members when things go a bit pear-shaped, and this is an overly large and oddly shaped pear. CIPA can provide that continuity and certainty in an uncertain world. To do so, CIPA must listen to its members and be ready to move swiftly and skilfully to respond to emerging needs. I would like to think we have done so but am still listening if there are more or different things we can do. Lockdown has been more than retaining a semblance of ‘business as usual’.
I have learned that CIPA did the right thing five years ago to invest in moving our core technologies out of the office, so that we could work around our data and systems. The initial driver was to reduce overheads and provide the securest environment for our data, the benefit has been the ease with which we were able to go remote. Overnight. Seamlessly. I dread to think how different the story would have been were our servers and systems not ‘in the cloud’ (or a datacentre) and fully integrated into the remote devices we use. I have also learned that we are spending a lot of money for prime London office space that we have not used for three months and may not use fully for many more months.
What does all this tell me about the future? It tells me that we need to rethink our use of space and having an office in London. I know this will send shockwaves through some Council members and others, but I believe we must use this as an opportunity to challenge our notions about the world of work. I know of chief executives of leading professional bodies with relatively short periods of lease to run who have handed in their office keys and will never go back to having a central office. I am not saying this is right for CIPA, but we should ask ourselves this question.
A number of Council members and committee members have told me they felt more included through videoconferencing. Perhaps more importantly, there have also been observations on the reduced stress and environmental impact of not travelling for meetings. We must not lose sight of this. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to look at how we can work more smartly in the future and reduce the impact on ourselves and the environment. Videoconferencing is not perfect, but we should invest in it and improve it rather than revert to type.
We have great people working for CIPA, some of the best people working in membership in my opinion. But we recruit from a small pool of people who live near central London or who are prepared to travel. I have a 150-mile round commute. For the work I do, it is my only option. Professional bodies and other associations are, by and large, based in London. I am in a senior role; I can afford to do it (financially, physically and emotionally it has its moments). Think how many great people we are missing out on because we expect them to mainly work in a central London office when they could mainly work somewhere else.
I am not entirely sure what the future looks like, but I know it should not look like the past. A smaller office? Shared meeting spaces? More remote working? Greater use of videoconferencing? Mainstreaming webinars? Virtual or hybrid conferences? Outsourcing? Sharing back offices? Everything is up for grabs and we should not shy away from asking ourselves these big questions.