Time to reconnect: Rebuilding pre-pandemic relationships

After so many months of being required to work from home (WFH), the world is gradually returning to a physical workplace, in one way or another. Many employers and employees have relished the chance to get back to some kind of “normal”, while others have felt anxious and less willing to leave their home office.

Any kind of transition can be stressful, especially in a time of so much uncertainty. So, how do we reconnect with each other, our customers, and stakeholders as we move out of Zoom mode? And what might the work model for the office-of-the-near-future look like? In the first of a two-part series, FYI looks at the principles of restoring those pre-pandemic relationships.

Hybrid working – the best of both worlds?

As well as prompting a massive surge towards digital strategies, Covid restrictions have highlighted that flexible working doesn’t negatively impact productivity. In fact, overall, it’s been quite the opposite. So, could hybrid working, a combination of WFH and office, be the ideal solution for both business efficiency and connectedness?

In an interview with BBC Worklife, Elora Voyles, an industrial organisational psychologist and people scientist at Tinypulse in California, said that hybrid working seemed like the perfect option at the start of the pandemic. “For bosses, it means they retain a sense of control and that they can see their workers in person. For employees, it offers more flexibility than full-time in the office and means they can work safely during the pandemic.”

But, as time went on, it became clear that things weren’t that simple. A survey by Samsung UK found that, although 56 per cent of workers said they had become more productive as a result of hybrid working, one in five were struggling to switch off from work, and almost a quarter felt as though they worked all hours or worked late into the night. The positive news was that 59 per cent were savouring the extra time they were able to spend with their family.

Therefore, while the demise of the office has almost certainly been over-estimated, BBC Worklife suggests that its purpose is evolving. Businesses are looking at more adaptable designs and changing floorplans, functions, and technologies. There is a particular trend towards larger communal areas designed to foster creativity and a feeling of connection. Rather than retaining the pre-pandemic idea of a place to go every day simply to work for eight-plus hours, the office can now be where teams get together periodically to collaborate, support each other, and reignite company culture.

For employees who enjoy and benefit from remote working, this model could reduce the psychological stress and physical challenges of having to duplicate their working day for two locations. It also nurtures the crucial function of face-to-face interaction.

Joe Hart, president and CEO of Dale Carnegie Training, agrees but acknowledges that, in these unconventional times, “it will take plenty of diligence and intention to foster an engaging hybrid workplace environment between those working in the office and at home.”

He recommends three strategies:

Focusing on strong team-building initiatives

Numerous virtual and face-to-face activities can be incorporated into a hybrid work model to help overcome potential feelings of disconnect. For example, ice-breaker questions, such as “Who is one person you’d like to acknowledge or thank?” can be used for combined remote/face-to-face meetings. “The team member [on Zoom] can type a colleague’s name into the chat function and then explain why they want to thank them,” Joe explains.

Creating opportunities for teams to share experiences

“Research has shown that teams who share positive emotions together are stronger and more resilient. Specific emotions and feelings we’ve identified here at Dale Carnegie that promote engagement and resilience include connection, value, and empowerment. These shared emotions can occur much more naturally when teams are working together in person.”

Keeping employees’ professional development in mind

Although staff development and continued learning opportunities may not be top of mind for many business owners presently, it’s a valuable workplace element that shouldn’t be overlooked for too long. “With many employees working from home and in-person meetings not always feasible, consider the capabilities of live training and instruction via video communication platforms like Zoom. This will ensure each team member has the same opportunity to engage and feel connected.”

Joe Hart concludes, “While these transitions between remote and in-person work are not easy, it’s essential that organisational leaders put as much planning and intention into operating within a remote or hybrid workplace. Continued professional development and interpersonal relationships should be top priorities. With hard work and resilience, these goals can be achieved in any workplace format.”

Face-to-face still really matters…

The late Steve Jobs, entrepreneur, CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc, believed absolutely in the power of in-person get-togethers. “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” he said, urging businesses not to give in to the temptation of trying to develop ideas solely by e-mail or other digital means.

Even now, when we’ve all had to become so familiar with digital platforms like Zoom or MS Teams, surveys regularly show that more than 80 per cent of us would prefer to meet in person. And certainly, it would be nigh on impossible to cultivate company culture and assuredness of psychological safety entirely online.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Robert Hooijberg and Michael D Watkins, professors at the International Institute for Management Development, go into greater depth about this, defining the “four broad dimensions of impact” in management development – collaboration, innovation, acculturation, and dedication – and saying how hard it would be to achieve and sustain these without in-person interaction. Going further, the professors explain that these four elements are fostered by five “design drivers”:

  • Purposeful focus
  • Interpersonal bonding
  • Deep learning
  • Unencumbered experimentation
  • Structured serendipity (precisely what Steve Jobs was talking about – accidentally stumbling onto something amazing while discussing something else entirely)

They suggest that businesses could incorporate “unstructured time”, such as dinners, walks, or shared recreational activities. “You do this to encourage informal exchanges as they often lead to important creative insights, while at the same time deepening interpersonal connections.”

…but don’t lose your focus on digital!

Many organisations have spent the past 24 months developing and strengthening their digital space – website, social media, e-commerce, YouTube channel, and the like. Clients have become accustomed to browsing products, watching explainer videos, learning more about company values, and placing enquiries online. Even as face-to-face interactions become more frequent, these customer expectations remain, so it’s essential not to waste the investment you’ve made in your web presence.

Communicating with integrity online involves such elements as:

  • Personalised messaging
  • Assuring people that they matter and are important to you
  • Being accessible and responsive
  • Sharing company values through more than words – videos of your community projects, fundraising activities, support for good causes, the team workspace
  • Listening to what customers say, and actively learning from this
  • Rewarding loyalty – membership programmes, exclusive offers for EDM subscribers

Business owners may wish to re-evaluate the staffing of their digital function, potentially upskilling the team to confidently engage via online chat, create stories that resonate with social media followers, and explore the opportunities of live streaming.

Moreover, with videoconferencing inevitably being a significant part of business communication for the foreseeable future, companies that offer this option will help reassure stakeholders, suppliers and customers of their consideration for everyone’s health and wellbeing.

Using research that involved more than one million customers across three continents, KPMG Nunwood of the UK developed a system that spotlights six fundamental principles as the building blocks for customer experience success: personalisation, integrity, expectations, resolution, time and effort, and empathy. “The six pillars articulate the elements of a target experience that drives both loyalty and advocacy, and they should lie at the heart of any organisation’s customer experience strategy, providing a framework for both implementation and measurement.”

Arguably, in 2022, personalisation and empathy have never been more crucial – not just for the customer experience but for employee experience also.

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Bernadette Robert

Bernadette Robert