Noticed anything different in your work relationships lately?
Much of the collective conversation around COVID-19 focused on its effect on traditional workplaces, and increasing preferences for virtual work. No wonder. A lot changed in a short time. There are obvious and superficial changes. We Zoom. We Jabber. Technologies invented before this crisis provided the solutions many needed to remain productive throughout it. In the process, we also changed the way we work like honing other, more complex skills. The circumstances, out of necessity, fostered problem-solving, creativity and dealing with ambiguity. Arguably, we’ve emerged more agile. Not so obvious, but observable change.
But we believe our shared “shelter-in-place” experience may have had a more profound impact on work. There is a more seismic shift that is both difficult to detect and which no one is talking about. It's about your relationships at work.
We believe this forced experiment has changed how we relate to authority. Our shared experience has levelled the playing field. There is no unringing that bell. So what happened?
Firstly, our behaviour is always a function of our broader environment. Consider children: devils at home, angels at grandmas. Same kids. The physical environment influences our psychological boundaries. For many, suddenly, the work environment has changed and this has had an impact. Whether it’s the corner office, the Armani suit or just the raised brow of the leader, how we understand authority and therefore behave, is signalled by the environment. In the absence of these cues, I behave a little more like ... me.
Secondly, something else was happening. We weren’t just “working from home”. We were working with our children, spouses, and barking dogs. With greying hair and sweatpants necessitated by “Covid 15”. While some of us used virtual backgrounds to hide the backdrop of our kitchen table, others didn’t. Our bosses saw our lives. And we saw theirs. We were truly #allinthistogether. We have seen one another more comfortable and more vulnerable. It is a paradox and a very human thing.
The result? Intimacy. And intimacy blurs traditional boundaries. Many companies touted inclusion. But it took a crisis to rapidly advance us. We witnessed genuine care for others and their well-being in the corporate world. Separated we were more inclusive. Another paradox we've mastered. Who’d want to go back?
Finally, we’ve worked under stress. We worried about health, finances, job security, or simply missing out. These take a toll. I have less actual, mental capacity to perceive nuance, or find a tactful response or even hold my temper. The stress, and in these unique instances, its pervasiveness and relentlessness, meant I didn’t always have the mental reserves to hold counterproductive behaviours in check. I may be a little less deferential, and a little less compliant. And under the circumstances, it was ok. Nothing broke.
We’ve spoken to many HR practitioners and they report similar observations. And shame on us if we’re surprised. The science is well established and we could have predicted this response; the negative impact of stress on behaviour, the positive impact of expressed vulnerability on relationships and even the impact on the physical environment on behaviour. It is a wonder more people aren’t talking about it.
We urgently need a purposeful dialogue about the impact of the prolonged “stay at home” on corporate life. We discuss returning to the workplace, the effect on productivity of virtual work or the potential to reduce overhead. But we can't ignore the obscure yet powerful impact on the psychological boundaries. It's the invisible issues that leaders stumble over.
And we think there are at least three strategies all of us should embrace;
This is all about being conscious about examining whether new, less formal boundaries are working for you. You need a point of view about the impact of these new dynamics with bosses, peers and subordinates. How else will you know what you need to do differently?
In order to get comfortable with the idea that power relationships have changed, try these practical tips.
Second, based on this awareness, identify your personal strategies for building the skills needed to deal with blurring lines of authority. Try these simple steps.
Finally, and in the spirit of #allinthistogether, you will want to support others. They will struggle too. Be more patient, understanding, and forgiving when others overstep your boundaries. It's a time for empathy.
Eventually, many of us will return to the workplace. Wherever that may be. Many of the physical cues of the past will return, but we have potentially built new, less formal, and less hierarchical habits. That of itself would be an adjustment. But we believe our mental whiplash will be extreme. Why? Because from the less formal, and arguably more human relationships forged at home, we will return to a workplace with a new, forced formality. Our workplaces must include face masks, and social distancing, and restrictions on our traditional corporate gestures of goodwill; the handshake, slap on the back, or a team high five. For the collective good, training, conferences, and networking will be discouraged. We can think of no greater juxtaposition to the informality of the Zoom happy hour, barking dogs included.
Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov work and write about the complex science of human performance and are co-authors of “Fair Talk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback.” Leveraging Fortune 500 experience gained across four continents, they equip leaders with practical tools for success. This article represents the authors’ personal opinions and not those of their employers or affiliated organizations.
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