Connecting with colleagues in the vanishing world of office life

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Over the last few months, I’ve heard a number of business leaders talking about the things their workplaces have lost during Covid and lockdown.

As staff turned to social media for day-to-day communications, small rituals fell by the wayside; birthday and anniversary celebrations, welcome and leaving drinks. Reaching out became harder and to some extent more mechanical.

The forums of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, WhatsApp have enormous potential. People can communicate across a range of distances, at short notice, but there are also drawbacks...

From a day-to-day management point of view, it is difficult to read body language on a screen. And with this, several managers have reported missing the signs of employee disengagement or even depression. And that’s assuming the managers can see their team members. Over the course of last year, I’ve held webinars, advised, and discussed serious topics with wonderful people whose faces have remained concealed behind a ball with initials on it, suspended on my screen.

Social media, as a forum for communication, is not associated with kindness.  On the contrary, the anonymity of social media platforms provides a haven for trolls, a reality known too well by the late UK television presenter, Caroline Flack, who tragically took her own life in February 2020. On one of her last Instagram posts, she put up an image with the words "in a world where you can be anything, be kind". Social media kindness day has been set up in her memory.

You may be wondering what this means in the context of a workplace, where trolling is not generally on top of most leaders’ concerns.

With social media, however, it is easy to dehumanize, and from that, it is easy to be cruel without even realizing it.

Kindness, on the contrary, requires effort and demands positive intent. The decision to be kind does not happen on its own, not in the hum drum of busy daily lives. When we are kind, we tend to direct it at people in our close groups. In turn, we risk forgetting about those who are not in our immediate field of vision.

With an increase in the number of people working remotely and with reliance on social media chat forums for keeping in touch, business leaders know they have their work cut out. Leaders have been speaking of their frustration at hosting hybrid meetings, with half the team next to them and the other half at home, some far away.

As one business leader told me, there’s a problem when you see some team members every day while others only pop up in emails and occasionally on screen.

It must be the time to open a dialogue in our workplaces about how we can step over this divide - our need to connect in a genuine and meaningful way alongside our ever-increasing usage of social media at work.

I’ve thought about my own experiences over the past 18 months and those of my clients and colleagues, past and present. Could we turn some of the negatives of social media into more constructive lessons in a drive to create fairer, kinder and more inclusive workplaces?

It’s worth reminding ourselves, in each interaction, that there is a person at the receiving end of non-verbal communication. Many business functions outside of the core; IT, finance, logistics, human resources, facilities and maintenance have been worn down by snappy, terse communications. They’ve spoken of feeling like a function, rather than a person.  IT support providers, for example, stretched themselves at the start of the pandemic working all hours available to assist in the transition to homeworking. They were unseen.  Even now, some can only be contacted via a faceless app. With that, it’s all too easy to forget that the recipient of a communication is a human with feelings.

Be aware that social media triggers anger - it’s important not to act on it. I’ve thought about the ease with which social media triggers my own emotional responses.  It’s very easy to get drawn into a negative debate, to feel frustration, even outrage at words which appear in print. Social media lends itself to the sort of irrational anger which would never manifest in a face-to-face discussion. I bear that in mind. It’s something I learnt from my days as a lawyer, when a client sent an email that looked tetchy. I didn’t respond immediately. I’d sleep on it. Often, I would lean into my reluctance to speak with them and pick up the phone the next day.

Celebrate the success of colleagues on social media. Social media allows a voyeuristic insight into the lives of others, and it lends itself to comparing notes, to sniggering or even jealousy. Back in the days of regular office contact, we would celebrate successes and we should continue to affirm our colleagues. They deserve their achievements to be celebrated, so if they post up something they are proud of, it costs nothing to acknowledge them. With this is the ever increasing need to reach out, particularly if our teams are working in remote settings.

There are no fast answers to the challenges of modern, hybrid workplaces. What is sure, is that acts of kindness are not unnoticed. They trickle down, with ripple effects. An act of kindness may pick up a colleague when they’ve had a difficult day at work, doubted themselves, when they’ve felt alone.

We are all human, we need connection, we need kindness. Perhaps the best thing we could do on social media kindness day is to come off social media for a moment and reach out to a colleague, for no other reason than to see how they are.

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