In ancient Greece, the agora was the place. A central public space, it was where matters of state were discussed, new alliances came together and important announcements were made. But more importantly, it was the spot from which resonated the pulse of society; great ideas, art, personalities, and businesses were forged there.
Back in May, I wrestled with what collaboration looks like on the other side of this remote work odyssey. I’m still wrestling, but recent experiences, alongside lessons from classical Greece, have helped shape my recent views.
In short, well-designed collaboration brings people together in a way that creates the modern-day agora. Our ability to foster natural interaction, connections, and dynamism will matter more than any quest for the perfect hybrid or voluntary return-to-work policy.
Well-designed collaboration brings people together in a way that creates the modern-day agora
Collaboration takes focus
At Factor, we held plenty of virtual workshops and meetings when we switched to remote work. Despite thoughtful agendas with ice-breakers, breaks, and break-out sessions, most of us found ourselves multi-tasking, switching the camera off, and quickly processing 3 other urgent things simultaneously (guilty). The opportunity cost of this behavior didn't fully resonate until this summer, when I had the incredible opportunity to meet, in person, with Factor’s senior leaders. Suddenly, I checked my phone less often and found myself more engaged in what was happening all around me. I noticed that the team was expressing opinions more passionately, and absorbing the nuance of each other's experiences with sincerity. The twists and turns and depth of conversation, the hand and body movements were at a level this group had not seen virtually. Agendas could stay loose because presence matters more than structure.
I noticed that the team was expressing opinions more passionately, and absorbing the nuance of each other's experiences with sincerity
Collaboration takes disagreement and debate
We were also fortunate enough to bring my executive leadership team together in person; a rarity given most of our team formed in the midst of the remote working world. I noticed something I hadn’t in a while: earnest and energetic debate, even disagreement. This, to me, revealed a sign of trust and feeling of comfort with each other that rarely reached the same high virtually. When I saw my team challenge my opinions, or champion different approaches to me or each other, I heard in their voice and saw in their body language the passion and thoughtfulness driving them. It didn’t feel confrontational. It felt like ‘cohesion’. We were shaping each other's perspectives, learning together, and ultimately engaging in ways that would get us to the best outcome. We were focused on alignment rather than joining the chorus or following the first or loudest opinion.
It didn’t feel confrontational. It felt like ‘cohesion’.
Even sporadic in-person meetings fuel greater connection & collaboration
With some relaxing of rules at the start of the year, I started to take small group or 1 to 1 meetings in-person wherever possible. This might have been in a public park, a coffee shop or an old-school office at times. Every one of these conversations felt more open and holistic than its virtual cousin. My colleagues and I saw and felt one another’s emotions, and it seemed natural to speak more candidly than I would virtually. I felt more comfortable expressing doubt and uncertainty where that was warranted. I worried less about something being misconstrued or being communicated without context. I hope my colleagues felt the same. What really stuck with me is how just 1 of these in-person park bench meetings transformed the dynamic of the next 10 virtual calls. Whether with my own team or external clients/contacts, this ability to be more human with each other created the basis for new ideas and better communication. That trust and context persisted.
Just 1 of these in-person park bench meetings transformed the dynamic of the next 10 virtual calls
So, this brings us back to the original question. With virtual work, what was missing? It wasn't just a physical meeting room. Instead what we missed was the focus, trust, and understanding that we gain from human interactions.
In this way, leaders need to think about the modern-day agora not as a location, but a mindset. If you can get in the agora mindset from your skyscraper in Manhattan or Singapore, fantastic. But it’s not about the office, it’s about the environment you create wherever you’re working, meeting and collaborating. The next generation of work should consider both the conference room and the coffee shop as viable locations for excellent work. As leaders, we need to collaborate with intention no matter the environment. This will help untangle collaboration from the conference room - it can happen anywhere when the mindset of the agora is one we all carry within.