People are difficult. This will not come as a shocking comment to anyone who has ever dealt with another human being. Yet in spite of the endless tripwires, traps and trials we encounter when dealing with our fellow homo sapiens, positive contact and communication with the people around us are paramount to leading a healthy life. When it comes to maintaining positive relationships with our colleagues, there can be challenges at the best of times, so what should we do when we are isolated from those people? Instead of dwelling on the dangers of letting our work relationships slide, this short piece will focus on what we can do to keep communicating well in the age of Covid, and importantly, discuss what we can do when we finally re-emerge from our caves.
Adapting to the current norm
By this stage, you have doubtlessly read more than few articles on how to look after yourself in isolation, but how does this transfer onto looking after our relationships? As important as it is for our own sanity to remind ourselves that this is a temporary situation, and that life will indeed be normal again, it is equally important to remember that potential damage done to our relationships may linger on long after we are back in our favourite restaurant discussing the madness of the first half of 2020. For this reason, it is vital to look after these relationships as much as we look after ourselves.
To do this, we must reach out. The more we are isolated, the higher the tendency is to look inwards. With this, there is an amplified risk of evaluating the world through a very narrow, and highly subjective lens. It is only natural to evaluate a situation based on our own, personal experience, but it is important not to forget that everyone is experiencing the lockdown differently. The only unifying factor is that the situation is stressful for everybody, and this is certainly not a competition as to who has it worse. It is therefore important to try to understand what our colleagues are currently experiencing, and to approach these discussions without prejudice. It may not always be possible to be sympathetic, but we can always be empathetic.
Talking to each other
As with many problems, the solution can be found in proper communication. Things we usually take for granted are currently no longer givens. Miscommunication is one of the most common causes for fractures in interpersonal communication when we have a full arsenal of tools at our disposal, so currently this risk is high.
Now is not the time for subtext. As uncomfortable a shift as it may be initially, it is vital in these times that expectations are expressed explicitly and clarified unequivocally. What does it mean to work remotely as part of team? How often should we speak? Is it business as usual, or are we in Covid-mode? If being in isolation has changed the nature of someone’s role, how does their new, temporary role look? These are all questions that require answers that are easy to understand and transparent to the whole team. If expectations are clear, and the whole team is involved in these answers, misunderstandings over who should be doing what and potential resentment over a perceived lack of input from certain members of team can be avoided.
Another important point to consider is how we communicate. Nonverbal and paraverbal communication represents a huge part of our message. Compare an email to a telephone call, and a telephone call to a face-to-face meeting. As we come to grips with video conferencing technology, it is important to remember that as much as we love our Bahamian beach backgrounds for Zoom, videoconferencing is not a gimmick, as the importance of seeing someone’s face and hand gestures is irreplaceable. Videoconferencing cannot substitute face-to-face contact 100%, but it is the closest we currently have. Do not give in to the technology resisters, and switch those cameras on!
Finally on the topic of communication, it is important to consider our communication style. Do you enjoy soft expressive language, or do you prefer to be direct and to the point? One person’s ‘straightforward’ can be another person’s ‘rude’, and one person’s ‘friendly’ can be another person’s ‘vague’. When communicating, the responsibility lies with the person giving the message to present it in a way that will be well-received. It is not the responsibility of the person receiving the message to interpret what was meant. Therefore, before saying something, consider the communication style of the person who you are speaking to, and make an effort to shift your style towards theirs. Again, this will lead to a reduction is misinterpretations and therefore a reduction in ill-feeling caused by these misunderstandings.
So what happens when it’s over?
As previously stated, we know this situation is finite. If we manage to maintain positive relations throughout our isolation how do we facilitate the transition back to normal life? For this I have three simple tips.
Firstly, do not shy away from having difficult conversations. It is important to create a forum where everyone can express themselves and reflect on the time spent physically apart. Issues should be raised openly, but without accusation. These issues should be addressed frankly, and then we need to move on.
Secondly, celebrate being together again. This is more than an evening in the pub to catch up. Organise an event that brings everyone together again. This event should be goal-oriented and require team collaboration. Remind everyone of the joy of a joint achievement and people will soon remember what they like about each other.
And finally, do not forget the positive lessons learned from our Covid experience. As difficult as this is for everyone, we have been presented with, in the words of my favourite four-fingered philosopher, a crisitunity. The extra attention we are paying to our own mental health, the extra attention we are paying to how we communicate with others, and the extra care we are giving to the messages we are sending can form the basis of excellent communication habits moving forwards. We will get through this together, as long as we keep on talking.