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21 April 2020

Guest Blog

Lockdown: connection and communication challenges


Empathy, connection and understanding are needed more than ever when communicating in a virtual world. Comms and neuroleader practitioner, Deborah Hulme, Director of Minerva Engagement, shares her thoughts.

This challenging time continues to throw up many questions for communicators as we explore the effectiveness of our crisis communication and consider how to communicate with people based in thousands of different spaces and in diverse circumstances.

We’re also exploring how we can support our leaders to keep their teams engaged with colleagues and the organisation.  It will be a stimulating debate and one that will stretch our discipline as it grows and changes shape in response.

In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to share some of my personal observations of communicating among colleagues in our new virtual engagement world.

Screen time

We are all using media and technology to stay in touch and it is great that we have it.  However, wall-to-wall conversations on-line are tiring and quickly exhaust cognitive resources.  The concentration required is more intense than for an in-person meeting.

While moving from one Zoom/Skype/Facetime call to another with only a 15-minute break in-between might be OK for a couple of calls, it is not conducive to performance or wellbeing when the calls start at 8.30am and run through to 7pm, with hardly a break for lunch.

We may think we are adding value, however, our ability to think and contribute constructively is severely impaired by early afternoon and over a number of days we put ourselves at severe risk of ‘burn-out’. Sometimes it is hard to say ‘No’ and, while there is an onus on all of us to become more disciplined around our own personal diary management, there is also a requirement to raise the bar on meeting management (virtual or otherwise), generally. Is there an agenda?  What is the purpose?  Who really needs to be on the call?

Boundaries

When at work we are at work, which creates its own natural boundary from home life. Whereas when we work from home these boundaries can easily blur, which is fine if we are working from home one day per week, but not when we are working from home full-time, over time.

It helps to find a space to work that is designated for work and, importantly, agree with family the times we will be working and our ‘ask of them’.  If there is another home worker or two in the house, then there will need to be a conversation and rota agreed for who does what and when.  It cannot be assumed that, just because we might suddenly be working permanently from home, the entire household will bend to suit our needs with no ‘give’ from us.

It is a negotiation and a re-contracting, with those who share our home space, on how we will live and work together; an active process of discussion, compromise and agreement. It is not something that can be assumed either by us as individuals or, importantly, by those we work with.

Our organisations will also need to re-think the contract with employees.  For example, a working day of 9am to 5pm may not work for some who suddenly find themselves based at home.  It may need increased flexibility, for example, 7am to 11pm and 3pm to 7pm, or something else. It is important for us all to remember that with the change in working conditions, the work contract may well rest with the individual, but productivity, continued contribution and wellbeing are largely dependent on the family or home situation, which may not be as accommodating or engaged as the organisation may wish.

Social

When on calls to discuss work, it is easy to dive straight into the work agenda and content for discussion.  This is valuable, however, so is making time for ‘content free’ calls.  Calls where we can dial-in to ‘just connect’ with the team, sharing experiences and stories.  Some may consider this to be wasted time, however, it is invaluable to team connection and wellbeing.

When we are on-site, we often swop stories on lunch or coffee break or in-between meetings or even as a short break from the laptop or production line.  Such conversations and interactions provide an enjoyable pressure release, building stronger team connection.  It is easy to lose this when we are all in different locations, connecting over the ether.

We have found the introduction of our Friday morning content-free check-in calls invaluable.  Nervousness on whether anyone would speak or what we would say has dissipated as we share where we are, what we are feeling, what has happened in our lives and wish each other well for the weekend.  It takes permission and courage to get started but once rolling, we can say from experience, it is a great way of staying together and fully in-touch.

The emerging creative

This is similar in concept to the content-free calls.  With no commute time and few opportunities to go outside, there is plenty of time to think and reflect on what we do and how we do it.

Ideas float around the head and creative sparks buzz and pop.  It is quite fascinating and not something, in our normal relentlessly busy lives, we are used to noticing.  Yet those thoughts and ideas are there and they are emerging all around us as little green shoots of opportunity.

Again, if all we are doing is day-job call after day-job call we have no way of capturing those ideas, understanding what our teams are thinking and harvesting some of the innovation and imagination that may help us pull out of this period.  It is possible to have virtual ‘ideas parties’ or make imagination part of the content free calls.  I am sure if we do our own reflection, there are many ways we can think of to capture the ideas that will be flowing from and around our teams.

Cold turkey

This has been part of my learning and something I had not fully appreciated.  Some people, particularly those who lean hard towards extroversion, find it very difficult to be left in a quiet empty room after a virtual conversation has finished.

In normal circumstances, after the formal meeting has completed, we would be clearing away coffee cups, chatting about the week/weekend and generally ‘coming down’ from the meeting.  On a virtual call, this is not the case, the meeting concludes, everyone says goodbye, you click ‘end meeting’ and that is it, silence and alone.

I learnt from one of my extrovert colleagues that this is difficult and can leave one feeling flat and lost, taking some effort to get motivated again to move onto the next thing, which is tiring in itself. While we can’t be in the room after the conversation, we can understand that it is a real cause of anxiety for some, and perhaps avoid abrupt conclusions to meetings and make time for everyone to check out of the meeting properly.  It highlights the need for empathy and understanding and was a timely reminder that everyone is finding their own way with their own challenges to surmount.

While the above are just a few of our observations, they do highlight the need for empathy, connection and understanding.

With our teams currently spread across thousands of different households, all subject to change, robust communication combined with effective leadership are both front and centre in terms of the positive difference and impact they bring, when delivered well.

As communicators we may well need to develop and hone our skills to ensure they stay fit for purpose within our own discipline and we will certainly need to support many of our leaders as they learn how to lead and finally make the transition from managers to leaders.

 

 

 

Deborah is a comms neuroleader and Director of Minerva Engagement. Minerva Engagement specialises in applied neuroscience for high performance and wellbeing, bridging the gap between leadership development and employee engagement to deliver measurable results and change that lasts.

Deborah is keynote speaker at our next Sequel Presents webinar on Thursday 7 May, 11-12pm on Adapting to change, the psychology of work and helping employees feel motivated. To book your spot via Eventbrite, click here.

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