Commentary
September 2, 2020

Fostering social connections in a WFH environment

Fostering social connections in a WFH environment
Trying to lead a business remotely forces you to think deeply about the critical importance of an organization’s internal culture.
By 
Françoise Gagnon

As we officially welcome our three new executive hires to the ADGA office next week, we also find ourselves entering the first stage of a careful, staggered return to office life. Understandably, there has been considerable internal discussion about this; even a gradual shift back to the office can feel like another disruption in peoples’ lives, especially as we have all grown comfortable in our new, largely house-bound routines. Some are eager to get back while others less so. It’s with that in mind that our first cautious steps on the way back to a functioning office life are modest ones, beginning with senior management only, who will be expected in the office just two days a week. As always, our employees’ health and well-being come first, and we are scrupulously adhering to every public health guideline.

Working remotely and trying to lead a business these past several months, I’ve been forced to think deeply about the critical importance of an organization’s internal culture, and how best to foster it. It is challenging enough to foster a company culture committed to excellence, and the sense of belonging it should inspire, at the best of times. Obviously, that becomes still more challenging when everyone must suddenly shift to working remotely. Now, introduce a whole roster of new players, new leaders, into the mix. I have pondered long and hard on how you cultivate those important inter-personal bonds, and build trust among colleagues, when there isn’t the benefit of casual exchanges at the kitchen counter, or the ability to pop over to a someone’s office for a one to one?

I have come to believe that it is impossible to bring in senior team members and successfully onboard them without establishing those crucial face-to-face connections. I think often of Peter Drucker’s famous phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If we heed to that principle, how are we to nurture a culture in the absence of everyday, in-person contact? How do we foster a sense of team over WebEx? The short answer, I believe, is you simply can’t. How do you read a room? How do you assess body language? How do you really get a feel for someone and where they are coming from? So often we use those cues to help inform our assessments of people or a situation, particularly in a business context. Teleconferencing and even phones are fine for conversations of a more transactional nature, but strong inter-company communication and collaboration is very much in the details of everyday human interaction.

I sense that many organizations are struggling with these questions as they ponder the months ahead. Perhaps our situation is somewhat unique given the number of leaders we are onboarding at this particular moment, though I suspect we are not alone either; in response to the pandemic many companies have either reduced or restructured staff, putting new stresses on company culture. Can we conduct business remotely? We can and we have, successfully at that. But it is not just a question of being functional or productive.   It is HOW we do business that shapes and defines ADGA from the Boardroom to our cubicles. It starts with our Chairman, and the caliber of dialogue and behaviours demonstrated by all members of our Strategic Advisory Council and it cascades down to our Executives and across our companies. Sarbanes-Oxley popularized the phrase “the tone is set at the top”. Behaviour is not an artefact found in a company code of conduct. It’s a consistent set of actions and conduct modelled by leaders. It’s a standard of integrity and ethics. It is found in the tone and quality of our dialogue internally and externally.

The initiation of our new Executives is critical to their success moving forward. To position them for success, we will conduct a fulsome onboarding exercise in the coming weeks, taking every precaution to protect them and ourselves, ensuring that they get to know their teams, our values, and are prepared to form storm norm and perform in a world that is anything but norming and performing.

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