Ever since a wonderful week in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2016, I’ve told the story of one of the most interesting companies on the planet: Menlo Innovations.

Founded by Rich Sheridan and James Goebel in 2001, this compact software engineering company is now the stuff of folklore (well for people like me it is).

What’s so special about Menlo Innovations then?

In summary:

And so that’s the story. I tell it time and again in keynotes so important to the so-called future of work do I believe the Menlo way is.

But this is not about Menlo per se except this one thing: Pair working.

I featured Menlo in my 2017 book Transformational HR as an indicator of a small company that has NO HR, and that working in pairs should be a strongly considered format for HR where it operates in larger or mid-size corporate environments.

And PTHR has adopted pair working. Not quite like Menlo but because the 8 of us are working in a self-managed way, there is no line management structure so people operate in pairs as Business Partners. Checking in on wellbeing, workload and performance, learning and progression — all done in a seasonal pairing with another member of the team. We’re about to rotate and I’ve up to now been paired with Clare — who is our Executive Business Partner. We check in each day Clare’s on duty. We look at development and performance and feedback on each other and we’re there as a nano-team within a micro-organisation. I’m about to switch to being Kirsten’s Business Partner and we’ll do the same. Clare will partner with Jessica. Broch will partner with Emily and Catalina will partner with Crystal. It works. If there’s an issue in our Business Partnering, we have a coach from another pair we can bring in.

As a result of this and being across 4 timezones and working remotely, we need that other. We are therefore not alone.

And this is where mid-pandemic working needs pair working.

Instead of being alone, you’re in a pair. It may even be that your workloads could be combined and you can work on it together and not as two work stacks.

Imagine never feeling isolated because you have a work partner?

Imagine having someone different to you to help you think things through and cast a different perspective on an issue who has no reporting responsibility for you? Safer, smarter, more sincere than any line manager relationship (probably).

Why don’t we forget that the team is dispersed for one second and just pair-up people to create these tiny teams within? And rotate, and learn from each other, and be there for each other and be accountable to each other and deliver with each other.

‘Ah but Menlo are dispersed so I bet this has all gone by the wayside’ you might say.

Except #TeamPTHR’s Virtual Menlo tour proved otherwise. The ingenious use of Zoom, Google Meet, Google Sheets, Trello and their core coding applications means the pair working is alive just in different locations.

Here’s a genius thing. Each pair sets up a Google meet ID. It’s on a spreadsheet used for work allocation each week. If you want to talk to that pair, you’ll find them on the Google Meet link as if you’d pop over to their desk space. It works. Totally.

I’ve already adopted this. So I open up Google Meet when I’m not on client calls and anyone of the team can find the link in my calendar and just ‘pop-in’. Isn’t it simple in its genius? It happened twice today, my first day of doing it. And it was almost like being sat across from someone who’d say ‘Hey, do you have a minute about…’ Though we’ve gotten brilliant at Slack use, this high-speed voice technology (as Menlo calls talking to another person) is just what you sometimes what you need to speak to and see another person.

All hands daily stand-ups still occur at Menlo. Except they’re on Zoom and probably people are sat down now. And each pair — who used to hold the famed Viking helmet symbolising their pairing — do their pair-based update. And on their arrival into the Zoom meeting, type the word ‘next’ into the chat window which records (to the second) who arrived when. So instead of going around the circle as it was in the office, there’s the flow already in the Zoom chat window by the time of arrival. So no embarrassing talking over others (no, you go ahead) or having an orchestrator logging who’s spoken and who hasn’t (and the windows on Zoom are moving around anyway) this simple process shows the attention to detail and efficiency that’s the hallmark of Menlonians.

There’s more I could share, but that would spoil what is a brilliant experience. The Menlo culture tour. I’d recommend it SO much. 90 minutes of wow.

But again, back to pairs.

We’re isolated in our study, kitchen, dining room table wherever. As we’re the lucky ones who can work in safe isolation from home. But it’s lonely, tiring, deflating and we lack social contact.

Except if we’re in a pair. With Google Meet (or MS Teams or Blue Jeans) on when we’re not on calls to others. And we can chat and stop and ask and share a joke or just ‘what’s for lunch today?’

Pair working isn’t just for technologists. It could be for all of us.

Pair working could be the mental health decompression, the belonging reminder, the efficiency creator and the human contact substitute we all need in a pandemic-afflicted world.

And Rich and the team at Menlo Innovations has proven the worth in this approach for over 19 years.

Remote pairing could be our saviour for the long, cold winter ahead.

What’s stopping you from trying it?

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017-2019 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan