Have you noticed that since 'lockdown', there have been some significant changes to the way businesses are functioning. Remote and hybrid working is now commonplace and, as a consequence of just this, the dynamics of business life has profoundly shifted.
In a nutshell: our relationships are now more virtual than in-person. In itself, this is not new news; for some decades now, there has been a marked and obvious change in the way people are connecting, communicating and relating to each other. And to be fair, there are numerous benefits to being able to trade with almost anyone, anywhere, any time. Geographical and time boundaries are no longer major obstacles to business.
As we know, there is much critical commentary about how "young people today are spending too much time on social media" with a plethora of posts (on social media, of course) about how Gen Z and now Gen Alpha are spending vast amounts of time in the virtual world of gaming, social media and a life dominated by apps. Given the ubiquitousness of criticism of (and concern for) the younger generations in this regard, it's interesting that there is significantly less comment about the effects of virtual relating in a business context. Whilst managers might be sympathising with a colleague during a coffee break about how their 12 year old daughter is "always on her phone", I wonder whether they are equally sensitive how their co-worker is dealing with being 'remote'.
It seems to be a universally accepted notion that good business is predicated on good relationships. Indeed, most people believe that life, in all its variable contexts, is at its best when relations between people are harmonious and mutually supportive, rather than combative and oppositional. So let's suggest some key features of "good" relationships:
CLOSENESS & LOCATION
When we talk about the 'culture' of a business, what we really mean is how that business goes about doing what it does. In other words, the behaviours of its people. And given that behaviour is learned through our relationships, it behoves business leaders and managers to carefully consider what behaviours they wish to see displayed by their employees. [Contact me to discuss how to evolve a bespoke Behavioural Competency Framework for your business.]
From infancy and throughout the rest of our lives, the single most efficient way we learn about behaviour is via our role models. We imitate and adopt the behaviours of those who are most influential around us.
"As a manager, what behaviours are you modelling? Are you a great role-model for your people?"
We also know that human beings develop their relationships using internalised personifications in mental space. We develop this skill by having physical, real-life location experiences over the course of our lifetime. If our virtual environments lack the physical presence of others, we miss out on a vital component of how to create meaningful internalised personifications. As a result, our perceptions of others can often be skewed. Have you ever had that 'double-take' moment when you finally meet someone face to face that previously you had only had online contact with?
With the idea of being in the physical presence of others comes another important issue: How peer behaviour influences and affects work ethic and performance. In a physical office where peers are mutually supportive and healthily competitive, expectations around effort and performance can be harnessed. High performing teams mostly arise when peers are working in an energetic space, witnessing each other's efforts in person rather than during a zoom session. Remember, many of your employees will spend considerable amounts of time each day on their own.....
What are the implications for managers and leaders? Simply put: Managers and Leaders need to start talking about behaviour and about relationships - not take these things for granted. They need to encourage (even demand?) that their teams meet up in person regularly. They need to role model behaviours in explicit ways to help their people understand how to counteract the lack of frequent physical contact with their peers - maybe even encourage them to go out in breaks to intentionally be in the presence of other human beings, whomever they may be!
PHYSICAL PRESENCE & TOUCH
I think that hugging at work should be compulsory! Well, maybe not compulsory.....but I do think that as Western culture has become more and more 'contact averse' (precipitated by 'lockdown' experiences and messages around 'social distancing'), business leaders need to be bold and send clear signals that it's ok to be in the physical presence of peers. Depending on your own point of view, leaders might even actively encourage (role model) physical contact. Why? Because without physical contact, human beings are significantly impoverished and, as a result, quickly develop feelings of isolation, anxiety, worry and even fear. As a note of caution (and arguably a necessary one), it's always advisable to ask the other person if they're ok with any type of physical contact....
"Without physical contact, human beings are significantly impoverished and, as a result, quickly develop feelings of isolation, anxiety, worry and even fear."
These feelings are NOT conducive to great performance! (It would be interesting to run some research on the relationship between 'touchy' business cultures and 'non-touchy' business cultures and their respective rates of attrition and performance figures....)
When I was studying music at university, one of my tutors said: "Always take care of the silences between the notes". Over the years, this idea continues to resonate: the idea that whilst the actual notes are important (of course), the power of the music is conveyed by how these notes are played, the gaps between them. Highjacking this metaphor, we can say that whilst the actual work is important (of course), it all the other more subtle things that determine how the work is done. Such as? Motivation, application, determination, stamina, behavioural flexibility, the ability to take feedback, deal with disappointment and criticism, innovation and creativity......this list is a long one. AND then there's the stuff that either enables or disables these behavioural traits. What stuff? Things like trust, happiness, novelty, confidence, self-awareness, optimism and the ability to be vulnerable and uncertain.
How do these important human skills become available for each of us? The answer is simple: these things are learned and practised from within our relationships. The quality of our relationships determine the quality of our behaviours and, thus, our output at work.
What are these 'gaps', these subtle other ways through which we engender and mature all of those vital skills listed above? They are the touch points we share, mostly out of conscious awareness, every day when we meet and connect with others. They originate in our body movements, our breathing patterns, our eye movements, our facial expressions, our slight shifts in posture, muscle tone, the minuscule vibrations we sense via our peripheral vision.......even our electromagnetic energy pulsations from the region of our hearts. So much of this is simply not available online, we just don't see or feel it anywhere nears as much as when we are in each other's physical presence.
A NEW LEADERSHIP DIRECTION
The implications are huge. In my next blog I'll be talking about how business leaders can ensure that people feel connected, seen & heard, appreciated and feel safe. Be warned: I'll be using words like "kindness", "compassion" and even "love" - and how these three things will prove to be the very life-blood of an organisation and how, without them, business success is much, much more difficult to achieve.