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Creating a culture of connection in a COVID-19 world

The last few months have been filled with dramatic changes creating feelings of uncertainty, instability and tremendous pressure for business leaders and employees alike. While the natural inclination at a time of crisis may be to focus on simply keeping afloat, ensuring the survival of the business core and disregarding other long-term organizational initiatives, research has shown that companies who are able to innovate and lead with authenticity and courage will be able to weather the storm and come out the other side stronger, with nearly three out of four executives expecting the COVID-19 crisis to be one of the biggest opportunities for growth in their industry (McKinsey, 2020). When the external environment seems to be disintegrating and falling apart, a strong internal integration is key to allow an organization to not only survive but grow and flourish through the crisis.

Companies have had to quickly implement working from home and flexible working situations and have discovered many advantages for both the organization and the employees, increasing productivity and reducing costs. It is unlikely that we will return fully to the 9-5 office work setup that existed in the past, even once the pandemic is over. However, this means that organizations need to adapt their culture in order to maintain healthy communication and relationships, to strengthen employee engagement and identity, and to build trust, collaboration and intimacy.

We found that this cultural change needs to occur on three levels – informal connection, one-on-one relationships and group work:

1) Informal: Informal casual conversations in the hallways and over lunch are important for creating a sense of belonging and encouraging creativity and innovation. As these spontaneous interactions cannot happen outside of a shared workspace, companies must intentionally create platforms for building relationships outside of formal meetings and discussions on a set agenda. This can happen through policies such as everyone signing on to conference calls ten minutes before the start in order to have the “coffee talk” they would have had in face-to-face interactions. Additionally, teams can meet for video lunchtimes, birthday celebrations, happy hours, online games/quizzes etc.

2) One-on-one: Invest in personal one-on-one relationships through setting up and actively encouraging individual conversations in your teams. Think about creating a system that will allow each person in the team to have a “speed-date” with each other member in order to strengthen the network of relationships in the organization, appreciating the strength and contribution of each member of the team, and to build intimacy that will create trust necessary for upcoming business discussions. These meetings can include getting to know more about each other’s past, present and future; understanding where each one comes from, what their unique skills and achievements are, and what their visions and aspirations are both for themselves and for the organization. This is especially important when on-boarding new employees into remote working.

3) Group Forum: Forum is a structured methodology for meetings that are outside of the day-to-day business agenda which provides a space for the team to engage with one another in a meaningful way, building a community of people who support one another. The Forum process has existed for over 50 years serving the CEOS of some of the largest companies in the world and providing them with the opportunity to connect and build a bond of support under a setting of confidentiality. This translates into regular predictable meetings once or twice a month designed to create a culture of care for one another, dealing with personal and professional challenges through group sharing of individual life experiences without judgment or giving advice.

The Forum groups are cross-functional, enabling organizational integration and breaking down silos to create agile bottom-up cultures that are able to move fast in response to changes and capitalize on opportunities. Companies that have implemented Forum into their culture are proven to out-perform competitors over a period of time (e.g. AgroTerra after implementing Forum, voted one of Russia’s top 30 best employers, management turnover down from 11% to 2%, employee engagement increased from 40% to 70% in two years).

The meetings are guided by the principles of confidentiality and trust, vulnerability and empathy, creating an environment of psychological safety which allows members to build resilience and move forward, making courageous business decisions. All this leads to long-term organizational transformation and growth.

- “As a business, we are now more agile and responsive as well as unified on how we interact with employees, customers and suppliers” – McElroy Manufacturing

We are proud to be associated with a large number of companies around the world in various industries who have already implemented these methods, making connection and intentional relationships part of their DNA. We have seen incredible results for both business performance and employee satisfaction. We would love to help you apply these ideas, so that you do not just survive this current crisis but thrive and turn your company into a leading force.

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