I’m going to start this article by talking about babies and young children (it’s relevant to my main point, I promise).
During the first two years of the pandemic, babies and toddlers were, like the rest of the population, kept inside. Even when they ventured outside, they were still contained within their family unit, to avoid the spread of the disease.
Early years professionals predicted, and have been proven correct, that this restricted human contact is having an effect, now that we’re allowed to mix. The social skills of children of this age, more so than older children, have not developed as they should. Children starting school can already be 18 months behind in their emotional and social development—this will undoubtedly have an impact on their educational attainment, and it could even affect their future opportunities if early intervention isn’t applied to help these lost kids feel confident and communicative with people outside of their family unit.
The relevance of this to the workplace today is that lockdown periods and remote working have had a similar effect on adults. Though not to the same degree, there are plenty of first-hand accounts and reports of employees who have become used to connecting with people through a screen and who feel perhaps too comfortable with their own company and that of their immediate social circle, to the point that it’s affecting their business network, their customer service skills, and their desire to progress in their career.
Sometimes you just have to dig deep and be social
In the vast majority of cases, this move hasn’t been intentional, but as with anything, if you don’t do/practise something regularly enough, the ability to do it at all can disappear or recede. This can apply to social skills and the ability to communicate effectively as much as anything else. I personally know several individuals who have lost confidence when it comes to networking, collaborating with or even socialising with others and become quite anxious if they have to attend meetings and events in person. They would much prefer to continue connecting online. As an individual with a strong introvert preference, I am very comfortable with my own company and could have quite easily become a recluse, however, I am aware of the importance of being with and around other human beings both for my mental well-being and maintaining and building strong productive relationships with my colleagues and peers but even so, there have been times when I had to dig deep to make the effort.
According to a report by Korn Ferry, ‘Everyone is out of practice, whether it’s an HR executive trying to rally staffers around a company’s purpose, or a manager trying to meet prospective job contacts face-to-face at a conference. Networking 4.0 isn’t quite the same. Conference planners say that it’s become professionally acceptable to attend conferences via video when illness or double-bookings arise—or when companies are cutting costs.’ However, whilst technology allows us to be a part of various meetings and events on a virtual basis, attendees miss the behavioural nuances they would spot if meeting in person. There’s also a lack of connection when networking via a screen; given that 93% of our communication is non-verbal, there’s no wonder this is the case when you only see someone in pixels and from the shoulders up.
Even in the workplace, many employees have unconsciously adopted a cocoon-like stance
The first few months when we were first ‘allowed out’ were slow for in-person events. People were rightly cautious but then came an intense desire to physically get back out there, to feel a real connection with others and to experience what normal life used to feel like. Fast forward another eighteen months, however, and it seems that the novelty has worn off. Given the choice, a lot of people are weighing up whether any networking event or social interaction is worth the effort to get there, whereas, in the past, it may have been a habitual or expected practice to network in person.
There are other effects within the workplace, too. We need to break down divides between remote and workplace-based employees, to get employees talking and collaborating again. Even in the workplace, many employees have unconsciously adopted a cocoon-like stance, concentrating on their own responsibilities and tasks, only emerging from this approach to work with others when they have to.
This has led to lower empathy levels, a drop in innovation, and internal workplace cultures feeling almost non-existent. A team on paper and when it’s necessary to get the job done, perhaps, but the understanding of others and the urge to be social has waned.
It wasn’t just the physical separation that Covid imposed that caused damage to our workplace cultures and teams’ morale. Mentally, the pandemic was a very scary thing for us all to live through. Time to think whilst on furlough or just more time with family because other leisure activities were unavailable has shown many people what’s important in life. For this section of the working population, their job is no longer their first priority. That’s not to say they do any less of a good job—they just don’t feel the same about their work and progress in their career as much as they did before 2020.
It’s a time of disarray and disconnection. Leaders need to reassert and embrace the organisational values of the company, engage every team member and show them how much they’re valued, whether they work in the office or at home. The company can’t do without them either way.
Employees need to not only feel connected to their company again but also to their colleagues. There’s a real need for higher levels of awareness and empathy for employees.
Self-awareness underpins well-being and performance
This isn’t just so everyone can feel warm and fluffy…greater self-awareness and an understanding of behavioural preferences underpin employees’ well-being and performance. Happy and connected employees are the outcome when leaders have higher levels of emotional intelligence and when they create a psychologically safe environment—where employees can show up as themselves, have a voice and feel that they’re valued /that they belong.
It’s probably expected, given the huge changes made in working practices and culture shifts over the last few years, that everything feels more insular. But this isn’t good for teams, or for companies as a whole. An ‘I’m alright, Jack’ approach won’t give a joined-up frontline service, nor will it see teams sharing knowledge, and it won’t contribute to the next innovation that will see your company grow. Community, collaboration and culture need to come to the forefront once again.
Jigsaw Discovery Experiential Learning Experiences help individuals within the workplace further their personal development, and it can also boost collaboration and coherency within teams where everyone is working towards a shared vision and know the value both they and their colleagues bring to the team and how their work is contributing to the greater good of the people, the community and the organisation. It can be used to coach employees towards improving their communication skills, as well as supporting the development of employees’ and leaders’ emotional, social and collective intelligence.
Humans are social animals, and whilst the next generation of workers will feel far more comfortable communicating on screen than older colleagues, it’s bound to come with some downsides, i.e. an insular outlook, different social skills, an aversion to leaving their comfort zone, etc. Whilst companies also have to adapt to these new ways of working, as do their customers and clients, it wouldn’t be good for anyone if every element of every business was done through a screen.
Convenience is wonderful, yes, but so is true connection. Learning how to balance both is today’s priority.