Lockdown, Remote Working and Relationship Maintenance

As we look back on 2021 and  accept the reality that the lingering COVID pandemic continues to challenge us socially, psychologically and in the workplace, many organisations are pondering the medium-to-longer term effects of periodic lockdowns, extensive remote working, and the consequential lack of real, face-to-face contact between staff. 

Whilst it is generally recognised that we have coped extremely well with these challenges, particularly in our use of technology and the virtual meeting, a lingering question remains, or is being posed: in the longer term, can the virtual replace the real thing (especially face-to-face contact)? The question is important particularly in those states hardest hit – Victoria, and now New South Wales, where longer and/or periodic lockdowns have led to a seismic change in our workplace practices. We now know that many organisations, including government, do not plan to return to full-time work in the office in the foreseeable future. Generally, whilst this ‘COVID normal’ appears to be at least the medium- if not long-term reality for most, a number of employers have also observed that when lockdowns have lifted, some staff have nevertheless been reluctant to return to the office even on a part-time basis. Reasons for this can be various and obviously include the convenience and efficiency of remote working, but some (employers) have postulated that a proportion seem hesitant at least in part because they feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar with colleagues and face-to-face interaction. Like any skill, generally we maintain them or get better  the more we practice. It would seem that face-to-face workplace interactions (particularly important meetings and negotiations) are not exempt from this. Whist some have reported or observed increased social anxiety in staff at face-to-face meetings, at NGS we have encountered this phenomenon in recruitment interviews where individuals report that it has been their first face-to-face meeting in many (sometimes as many as six) months, and that their anxiety levels and performance are affected as a result. It seems
the organisational impacts of COVID-19 are
increasingly relational.  

a lingering question remains, or is being posed...in the longer term, can the virtual replace the real thing?

Few would argue against the importance of strong relationships in the workplace. In her article in this newsletter, my colleague Dr Marianne Broadbent refers to one product of strong relationships that is critical: trust, or more specifically what Stephen M. R. Covey calls “the speed of trust”, which better enables teams to work together and cooperate or negotiate, particularly when matters are contested. The critical question concerns the importance of ongoing interaction in maintaining trust, and whether virtual interaction can suffice. Many argue that the virtual is inadequate, or certainly not as effective. This is particularly the case in newly formed relationships involving a new appointee or recently formed teams, where trust and the relational connections on which it is built have not yet been established. 

Many organisation leaders have commented over the past 18 months that face-to-face interaction among staff promotes creativity and, most importantly, learning and that virtual interaction is not the same. Virtual meetings tend to be shorter (this can be a good thing!) because they are less comfortable, and there is an absence of the casual ‘corridor conversation’ where people chat about day-to-day things, explore issues and enjoy each other’s company all of which helps people connect and feel comfortable in their workplace. The importance of strong relationships has been indirectly reinforced to us through our work in capability assessment. We regularly use the MHS EQi instrument to assess emotional intelligence (probably more aptly described as social competence). It is a fluid instrument that can reflect the impact of change in an individual’s circumstances, including at work. Often when the instrument was used at the early stages of a new and challenging role where mastery may not yet have been achieved, the resulting profile typically showed a marked fall in many scores, including Self Regard, compared to previous assessments taken 12 to 18 months prior when circumstances were different and mastery in a role was more established. Most of us have experienced this kind of challenge. The point is that developing mastery is often enhanced by the existence of strong work-based relationships and opportunities to learn from colleagues, including through casual conversations which allow for more self-disclosure – “What’s going on?” or “Can you help me with this?” This is particularly true for newer staff members.

The importance of relationships has been well documented in the Potentialife program developed by Tal Ben-Shahar and Angus Ridgway. This program devotes a significant component to the importance of relationships in achieving peak performance at work. Amongst numerous observations, they cite the Gallup Q12 survey that is designed to predict business success. One of the questions asks, “Do you have a best friend at work?” As they point out, whilst this question does seem a bit “soft and mushy”, it was nevertheless extremely effective in predicting team performance, and that a positive answer consistently differentiated between highly productive teams and those that were not. The authors also cite Gallup’s chief scientist Rodd Wagner: “Something about a deep sense of affiliation with the people in an employee’s team drives him to do positive things for the business he otherwise would not do”. This one question was found to be a powerful predictor of corporate performance in a variety of measures (Harter, Jim and Wagner, Rodd, “The Tenth Element of Great Managing”, Gallup, February 14, 2008 in “The Joy of Leadership” by Tal Ben-Shahar and Angus Ridgway, 2017). Certainly, it is hard to imagine how continued constant remote working can foster close personal affiliations and relationships of this kind.

Relationships are clearly critical, not only contributing to the wellbeing of staff but also to their engagement and affiliation with the organisation, cultural connectedness and experience of trust. Maintaining relationships in a climate of continued remote working presents challenges. Reluctance to ‘get back on the horse’ and return, even to part-time office work adds to this challenge. Nevertheless, we contend that the benefit of face-to-face interaction (even if only part-time) should not be underestimated, and that it is crucial to the development and maintenance of strong collaborative relationships in the workplace.

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Grant Nichol