It’s only small talk - but losing it may cost businesses big time

KUMESHNEE WEST - 12 November 2020

As lockdowns prevent teams from having their organic face-to-face interactions and ‘water-cooler’ conversations, critical skills are being lost with knock-on effects for productivity and employee wellbeing. Here are four ways managers and leaders can counteract the trend.

Some experts believe people working remotely can be more productive, but a recent study points to crucial skills being lost as a result of not having face-to-face office contact every day, and this poses real risks to organisations and businesses. 

The study by online assessment provider, Questionmark, identifies seven vital skills that are in danger of being lost in the workplace as a result of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown. Most of these skills are communication based and are usually honed as people interact at work – during casual chats, at the bathroom or in the canteen – and can be something as simple as giving useful advice or a tip to help speed up a task or manage a tricky client. Often dismissed as small talk, these interactions can have an outsized impact on relationships with co-workers, even affecting productivity.

As managers and leaders look for new ways to manage and motivate remote teams, this research highlights the importance of focusing on communication and mental health. To ensure critical business skills are protected and nurtured in these difficult times, businesses can choose to dial up their attention in four key areas:

Communication needs to be smarter - it may even be therapeutic

  Not everyone is able to chat freely over Zoom or Microsoft Teams and it can be difficult for some colleagues to make their voices heard in virtual meetings. Others may struggle to read non-verbal cues or have Internet or office-space related issues hampering their ability to connect online. For some working from home, the incessant stream of emails while having children at home adds enormous stress, affecting their work-life balance and their ability to structure a “normal” working day.

Online therapy can help here. Unsurprisingly, over the past few months, there have been more companies offering counselling and online therapy to staff members. Research suggests online therapy is as effective as traditional therapy and one online mental health service says it has seen a 500% increase in companies enquiring after mental health support for their workers. In one instance, a US organisation said that 53% of its workers feel mental health benefits are now essential.

Invest in skills and further education

  The Questionmark study notes that employers who invest in formal training at this time will reap rewards. For business leaders and executives especially, leadership development can really be a gamechanger. Many business leadership courses focus strongly on personal development and mastery, giving individuals important tools to interact with others and inspire and motivate people in ways to really help them feel valued and engaged at their workplace. Such programmes also give insight into how to make organisations more resilient and ready for the long-term possibilities of a constantly changing, uncertain business environment.

Many studies have shown that leadership development helps people do better at work, both in executing tasks and responsibilities - as well as contributing to the overall success of an  enterprise. A global study of close to 9,000 participants revealed that 99% of those polled after doing a particular leadership course said they had been able to reach their personal target goals. And 97% said they were more prepared for future leadership positions.    

Pay extra attention to working women  

While many people are struggling as a result of lockdown conditions, professional women are under more pressure than ever before. Women have always had more household responsibilities than men, are battling to deal with working remotely while having more child care duties. Many have had to reduce their working hours, or have stopped working altogether. A recentMcKinsey & Company report reveals that one in four women are thinking about downsizing their careers or dropping out of their jobs. More than 600,000 women dropped out of the US labour force in September 2020 compared to 78,000 men.

For many, this represents a potentially devastating setback for equality and gender rights in workplaces. Having more women in especially leadership positions contributes not only to greater representation and diversity but also to better team performance and greater productivity, as a definitive Gallup report showed. Creating stronger support structures for women will not only help professional women in their personal capacity but assist them in being more productive at work – therefore boosting business too.

Be more authentic and humble

To lead their companies and organisations more effectively through the pandemic and beyond, business leadership will have to adapt. According to one article published in the Harvard Business Review, new consensus is emerging on the kind of leader that we need currently – and how they should relate and interact with their employees. In times of crisis, authenticity and humility are increasingly valued over posturing and grandstanding. “Leaders, teams, and organisations that don’t skillfully navigate change will fail. Mastering this new reality requires fundamental enhancements to our collective capabilities such as knowledge and skillsets that are shared among members of a group through interaction, conversation, debate etc. 

Perhaps the most important skill business leaders need to develop – and help others to develop – is really listening to others. By practising so-called active listening, the listener gives their full concentration to what someone else is saying - and this makes them feel appreciated and acknowledged, even more productive and engaged at work, strengthening and deepening relationships. It often involves hearing something that isn’t actually said, like that a colleague who is constantly sick or tired and may be facing burnout. Or a team unable to make deadlines may be suffering from unresolved tension and conflict among group members. Knowing what is going on in the lives of team members and co-workers is as important as finding out how they are doing on a project or a deadline. Perhaps more important, some might say. As business magnate Richard Branson once said, “Lead by listening – to be a good leader you have to be a great listener.”

Kumeshnee West is the Director of Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business. 

HR management | Managing people | Organizational culture | Women in business

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