Relationships - Precious yet perishable

7am ... The first email I opened had come overnight from my European, Middle East and African Partners, inviting me to an EMEA Partners conference in Majorca in October this year. The email came with links to a website outlining travel protocols to be met to enable one to attend. Unsurprisingly, I will not be there. 

Such limitations are being felt far and wide. Only yesterday I was talking with my Shanghai based Partner who shared with me that he has not seen his children who are at school in the UK for over a year and, as a result of China’s closed borders, is unlikely to see them until well into 2022. Hours after that conversation,
I caught up with another Partner usually based in Tokyo. They had just arrived in the UK with their newborn daughter, in time to share her first steps
with her grandmother. 

10:00am ... The team and l farewelled my Executive Officer of the last three years—virtually. No champagne or cake shared in celebration. No buzz of congratulatory well wishes that might otherwise have been felt had we met in person. It’s hard to generate that same kind of energy in a Teams meeting.

11:30am ... I began preparing for a virtual NGS Global Partners Conference, which we will hold via Teams next week. (Our last physical Global Partners gathering was held in May 2019 in Sydney and our next will, with good fortune, be in the US in late 2022.)

1pm ... It is my lunch break and I have just put down the Financial Review, having read an article in which Andrew Yates, KPMG’s CEO, describes his first six weeks in the role and challenges of leading a firm of 8000 remotely from his home office. 

Daily limits

The common theme in all these observations is the absence of face-to-face contact. Ordinarily, our physical presence in the workplace lets us combine structured communication with the kind of informal social interaction that helps build connections and trust. We haven't had access to the kinds of conditions that help build enduring relationships.

We have been fortunate that the tech companies have enabled us as individuals and organisations to work, study and interact remotely; many now from home. Many now say that they prefer this mode and do not wish to return to a full-time office environment. Some have not set foot back into their former workplace
since March 2020!

There remain, of course, those like me who have built and worked in organisations where we have a lattice of relationships of Colleagues, Clients, Candidates, Sources, Friends and Families and Advisors. Many of these relationships have been built over years and can be maintained virtually however, we cannot build new relationships in the same fashion nor sustain existing relationships forever without human contact. The quote of the week from one interview in the UK for me is: “I’ve only started hugging some people again.”

Learning, contributing and growing together

In most large professional services firms, we recruit the best and brightest and rely on the energy and commitment of the under 30s who, in most cases, make up over 40% of our teams. These talented young professionals join us to learn, contribute and grow their careers. This includes learning from leaders, peers,
and clients. 

A key part of new recruits’ ongoing development is being with people and building relationships. For them, just being at work and doing their job is a major contributor to wellbeing.

It may seem ironic that the tech firms who have made a fortune enabling our ability to work remotely are the ones itching to get the teams back together. Although delayed by current circumstance the leaders of Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and Google are reported to be not giving up on the need for their teams to return to work. 

Netflix’s CEO is reported as saying that in his view there are no positives in remote working. Apple’s Tim Cook observes that there has been something missing from last year: “each other”. And Google’s CEO says offices filled with people fill him with optimism.

Getting the home v. office balance right

Striking the right balance between working from home and the office will differ by sector but is one of the greatest challenges leaders confront as we move towards 2022. Getting the balance right will be important for wellbeing of the organisation, individuals and the economy.

The key will be in listening to our employees and balancing personal and work activities, including people’s need to spend time with family or friends, play sports, go for walks and so on. 

Focusing on work tasks that interest them and make them feel positive will be important, as will providing work that stimulates new learning. Ensuring we and our employees take breaks from the relentless nature of our virtual domains will also be critical.

Challenges and future direction

Our challenge as leaders is to determine how we will lead our organisations and navigate a course to what life will be like post-lockdown. It’s not going to return to normal any time soon.

The key to any future direction will be in knowing what and how our organisation thinks. 

At NGS Global, one of our key strategic partnerships is our relationship with Angus Ridgeway and Tal Ben-Shahar, founders of Potentialife. Potentialife is a personal and organisational development program that enables the development and nurturing of relationships at an individual and organisational level across boundaries. The program is based on positive psychology and addresses Strengths, Health, Absorption, Relationships and Purpose. It is particularly relevant in these times as an enabler of communication, connectivity and the multiplication of relationships across organisations.

Regardless of the solutions we put in place, as leaders of organisations that have been and are built on relationships and trust, it is contingent on us to promote and enable group interaction.

There are some colleagues who will continue to work remotely, if the option is available, but the vast majority would prefer to return to the workplace or to a hybrid model. 

Our experience shows that firms benefit from the collective intellectual horsepower of the team and are energised by the strength of bonds between team members. As leaders, it becomes our responsibility to promote and enable the ongoing development of relationships and alumni.

There is no doubt that leading and managing the changes and reformations of teams will be complex tasks over the coming year/s. But, if we don’t nurture the benefits of this connectivity, we run the risk of creating a gulf between two groups of employees: those connected with relationships at work, and those who, perhaps as a result of increased remote working, are less connected. 

These are nuances that only regular personal interaction can enable us to observe and experience, and they should not be underestimated.

I trust you enjoy our Spring Summer Newsletter and Marianne’s piece on “Executive Talent Nuances in COVID Times”, Grant’s piece on “Lockdown, Remote Working and Relationship Maintenance” & David’s piece on “The Hidden Value of Organisational Capability Assessment.

Importantly, don’t forget about ‘Checking In’.

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Mark Lelliott