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Optimizing Culture in Our New World of Social Distancing

Mastering Remote Work and New Forms of Communication While Preventing the Death of Organizational Culture

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As we come to accept that even more of us will be working from home for months rather than weeks, it’s important to differentiate between physical distancing and social distancing, and vital for company leaders to use all options available to maintain culture in our instant WFH era.

This is an article about what to do in this time of disconnection and how to make sure that when we are able to come together again in shared space, our organizations are still functioning. I am not talking about the rules and systems, most of which will still be intact, but the unseen piece which we call culture, essential to all long-term business success.

Approximating Normalcy

In this new, largely isolating environment, it is more important than ever for leaders and organizations to foster trusting, cooperative relationships that enhance employee loyalty and retention. For culture to remain strong, it’s up to leadership to make sure their teams maintain cohesiveness even when almost everyone is working from a separate location.

This means not only maintaining regularly scheduled meetings through Skype, Zoom and other platforms whenever possible, but also finding more ways, and new ways, for employees to interact and connect remotely.

While the lack of physical interaction will be frustrating, it’s also exciting to contemplate how companies that embrace culture will find ways to turn negative situations into positive opportunities by keeping their teams motivated and connected during this period of physical isolation. It’s up to strong leaders to create more and easier connections among their teams, connections that will only be enhanced once we physically come together again.  

To maintain high levels of productivity, we’ll need to develop new forms of communication and incorporate all the tech at our disposal to approximate face-to-face interaction whenever possible.

Zoom Video conferencing (which allows hundreds to participate) should do well during our months of social isolation. One powerful opportunity is for CEOs, department heads and other leaders to create “Zoom Office Hours,” set times once or twice a week (ex., 2:00 to 4:00 Monday and Thursday) when they will be available to answer work-related questions submitted in advance and in real time.

In an effort to keep teams connected, managers already have launched Zoom ‘hangouts’–– a constantly running video chat where teammates can talk business, or just enjoy one another’s company. It’s encouraging to see friends getting their work done, and a space for them to talk about the challenges they’re experiencing.

Substitutes for social cues

To some extent, we all spend our lives in meetings because we actually have a need to be face to face with people. It isn’t just about our words, it is about our humanity, and the chance encounters that people have.  

So we must find innovative substitutes for face-to-face interaction, because without it, all our communication cues are diminished dramatically. Important social cues like mirroring behavior, eye contact, impatient fidgeting, a range of facial expressions and more will be missing from most interactions, making it harder to know when coworkers are angry, disinterested or upset.

We hear from our development friends in tech that they’re doing most code review face-to-face over Zoom instead of through written comments because they can be easily misinterpreted. The point being, we have a natural tendency to project our personal insecurities onto other people’s criticism, even if they’re being helpful, and this tendency is exacerbated by our isolation. Not enough can be said for the five-minute call that shows your coworker you’re engaged and well meaning. 

As leadership expert and author Ulrich Kellerer told Forbes in 2018, “Face-to-face communication also enhances productivity and achieving goals. Interpersonal communication is also vital for a business to function internally.  While sending emails is efficient and fast, face-to-face communication drives productivity. In a recent survey, 67% of senior executives and managers said their organization’s productivity would increase if superiors communicated face-to-face more often.”

Kellerer adds, “Connection is critical to building business relationships. Anyone working in sales knows that personal interactions yield better results. According to Harvard research, face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to garner positive responses than emails. Communication…requires courtesies and listening skills that are simply not possible on digital platforms.”

In fact, with visible social cues diminished or off the table, working from home presents an opportunity to improve not only our listening skills, but our speaking skills, adding, in the words of author and Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger, vocal confidence and persuasiveness to our communication strengths.

Introduce “Collision Connections”

Our friend Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, designed the company to amplify collisions and chance encounters with coworkers, in the knowledge that magic happens in these seemingly low value, off-hand occurrences.

More to the point, as the always insightful Mark Earls wrote in his book, I’ll Have What She’s Having, “We are social animals, and our day to day interactions matter a lot; in an organizational sense, this is often undervalued, but it is real, and if we do not honor this deep need we all have, we will become detached, and business functionality will suffer.”

One key to fighting isolation is to not only maintain existing relationships, but create new ones. Beyond staying in touch with people we always interact with, leadership can cultivate Zappos-style interactions by randomly assigning short, informational phone meetings between employees who seldom or never work together.  

So a home-bound sales manager in New York can interact with his company’s head of IT in Hong Kong during the brief periods when their workdays overlap. Leadership can enhance this experience by providing talking points or topics for brainstorming, though both parties might choose to discuss the shared challenges of balancing family demands while working from home.

Adventurous companies can take collision connections to the next level by distributing employee email lists and asking employees to pick names at random and connect by phone, through Slack or other connecting platforms.

Our New World

As we physically distance, it is important to remember the things that brought us together us in the first place: the stories and narratives that connect us and give us meaning, and as we physically distance, we also need to virtually connect.  This is also an opportunity to take advantage of the extra hours we are not commuting, and build new connections.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be offering more in-depth content on adapting to and thriving within our new WFH culture.

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