Jenni Field, author, international speaker and corporate communications strategist at Redefining communication.
While many love working from home and how it allows them to get so much done, the following is an example of a conversation I had in a workshop that confirmed that we don’t always know what’s right for us :
“I struggle with emails from John because I can’t tell if he’s annoyed or if something is wrong. We’ve been working together for a long time, but I just can’t say it right now.”
In a remote environment, we often have trouble connecting things to cause and effect. We fail to see that our disconnection from others can often make it more difficult for us to interpret purely digital communication.
There has been a lot of discussion about working from home. The benefit of less travel time is one of the main reasons people prefer it, but it can come at a price. As social animals we need connection, and connection through screens and technology is not how we were designed to build communities, collaborate and trust each other.
The fact that we can enjoy working from home and at the same time see our working relationships deteriorate and see no correlation between the two is the result of a growing focus on organizational processes rather than relationships.
The hamburger model illustrates this perfectly: we have a task (the burger) to accomplish, and to accomplish that task we need both processes and relationships (the sandwiches). Things just can’t work without both. And if you want to create an efficient and engaging organization, I think you need to put a little more weight on the relationship side of the burger right now.
Processes are of course necessary. If you are a fast-growing organization, a transforming organization or an organization that needs to reset its rhythm due to the crisis mode of the pandemic, you need different processes. But processes alone do not make organizations successful.
Organizations are people
Organizations without people don’t exist, so we have to consider the human element when it comes to getting things done – and this human element includes relationships and communication.
The increased use of technology means our relationships at work are different now. I see how it has so dehumanized us that we often don’t know how to have a good conversation. We don’t know how to disagree and discuss ideas without getting annoyed or unfriendly. We don’t have the connections that allow us to work together to solve problems while approaching them from different perspectives. We need to reintroduce empathy in the true sense of the word.
The pillar of relationship building
Empathy is about listening to someone else’s experiences and really believing them, even though it may not be something you’ve experienced. This isn’t always easy, and when we’re not physically connected, it can lower our empathy levels. Empathy is a core pillar of relationship building – it allows us to connect, support each other and converse without judgment or wanting to win an argument.
Making time for people is essential when it comes to relationships at work. In most of the conversations I have with leaders, the main need I see is the need to shift focus and where they spend their time. If you’ve invested heavily in new processes and ways of working, but haven’t invested time in things like conversation and personal moments, you could be setting yourself up for failure.
We often blame technology for the demise of conversations. The stilted way we communicate on Zoom became the norm during the pandemic. The rise of instant messaging has us quickly firing off messages to get through the to-do list in our task-oriented world. But I don’t think technology is to blame. The problem I see is that we’ve forgotten how to be present with each other – how to focus on the other person speaking and how to stay focused in the moment.
Also on an organizational level, we are mainly focused on looking ahead: the outcome of the change, where we will be in six months, a year or two years. Relationships at work need attention right now. People need to feel heard, which is why investing in relationships and conversation is not about financial costs; it’s about resetting how we work together from a human perspective.
Three ways to improve relationships at work
If you’re starting to see symptoms that your teams aren’t working well together and relationships are suffering, here are three things you can do today.
1. Check your interpretation. Think about how you interpret digital communication. Are you starting to understand things, are you making things negative, or are you feeling like things are happening without you being involved? If so, you should take the time to see people in person. This is one of the symptoms of the disconnection that has occurred between us since the beginning of the pandemic.
2. Call in communication experts. If there are changes in your organization and you are changing processes, make sure you have someone with communication experience and expertise to help. Some change advisors are more focused on the business and financial modeling than people; it’s important to make sure you have both, regardless of other people’s advice that might say you don’t need it.
3. Keep an open dialogue. Tell someone if you interpret their messages a certain way and it bothers you. They can’t change or fix something if they don’t know it’s broken, so find the right way to ask them if this was their intention. It is important to remember that we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their behavior.
All relationships need nurturing with open communication, honesty and a safe space to talk about differences. Once we understand this and create a culture that encourages it, the benefits can be huge.