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The best awaydays were never really about the unique location, the food and drink, or the activities. And though it pains me to say it as someone who has been a guest speaker at many awaydays, it was never really about the content of the day either. It’s always been about encounter, and in this time of workplace revolution, it is encounter that we and our colleagues still need most. 

While physical proximity aligns with encounter, this wellspring of wellbeing does not just boil down to spending time together. In a moment I’ll advocate a revolution toward what I’m calling ‘togetherdays’ that involve physical proximity, but as we’ll see, it is also possible to foster encounter in virtual environments. But first, we need to take a moment for a deep dive into what encounter really is and how it works. 

I Nominate Martin Buber as Chief HR Officer
Do you know the philosophy of the 20th century thinker, Martin Buber? For him, our very existence boils down to encounter. In fact, that’s what he said in his famous 1923 essay I and Thou: “All actual life is encounter”.

The encounter Buber is talking about is what so many professionals these days feel is missing. It is the act of relating to others not as objects – not as ‘It’ – but as beings – as ‘You’. The idea here is not far off what the German enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, advised when it came to treating others as ends in themselves rather than means to some other end. But the way Buber talks about encounter puts flesh and emotion on those theoretical bones.

Here’s Buber: “The It is the chrysalis, the You the butterfly”; “The relation to the You is unmediated”; and “No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation”. Encounter begins and ends with seeing others not as objects or bit players in your own personal drama, but as the whole, fleshy and messy, beings that they are.

Buber probably wouldn’t want us to try and find the ROI of encounter. But encounters clearly benefit us and our colleagues because they take us out of ourselves. As Buber puts it, encountering means ‘standing in relation’ to others, and being taken out of yourself – even just being reminded that you are not alone – has immeasurable value for wellbeing and peace of mind.

Virtual Encounter?
On the face of it, it might seem like physical proximity is a prerequisite for encountering colleagues. But as we’ve seen, encounter is chiefly about how we approach others – it’s about seeing them as a You rather than an It. In theory, it should be possible to encounter others virtually in video sessions, on phone calls, and even in emails. After all, slowing down to conceive of the person I am messaging as a real person rather than an object on my to-do list will likely change the very words and tone of that correspondence. Encounter is about how we see each other, and that can happen in a face-to-face setting or a virtual room.

But , I’m still going to advocate togetherdays.

Togetherdays – The Protein of Encounter
Like the slow energy release of actual protein, encountering others in a physical setting can do wonders for relational fitness. But the key here is proximity plus encounter. Simply working in a shared physical space is not enough.

As they move from fully remote working to a hybrid scenario where a portion of the team in a physical office, many businesses seem to be benefitting from simply being together in the same space. But, in fact, the value that has been experienced is not really about being in the office. It’s about encounter. This is something I’ve observed first-hand when delivering workshops in hybrid settings, many of which saw colleagues reconnect in the office for the first time in months. Having spent an extended period working purely remotely, these colleagues couldn’t help but see each other as robust persons – in Buber’s terms, as ‘You’ rather than an ‘It’. It was like colleagues had burst off the screen and were, amazingly, more than just talking heads and shoulders! What had happened was that the contrast of re-entering the office after a significant time apart had nudged authentic encounter.

That is the work that having something like a ‘togetherday’ can do. In our remote working revolution, away days out of the office are less relevant, but encounter is perhaps more important than ever. And while it is possible to cultivate encounter in the virtual context, coming together physically in a safe and appropriate way for the express purpose of reminding ourselves that we are more than our ability to contribute to projects is critical. It is business critical because it is human critical. As Buber would want to say, without encounter we’re not actually alive.

Dr. Brennan Jacoby, Philosopher and Founder – Philosophy at Work

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