“I’m sorry… we’ve never met.”
“I’m sorry we’ve never met.”
Same words, subtle difference. The first suggests an opening, and offer to introduce yourself, a chance to make a connection.
The second could be true of many people in my network. Many of mine are spread all over the world and while we may have exchanged messages digitally to the best of my knowledge we’ve never been in the same room at the same time. Probably not even in the same city. Perhaps not even on the same continent. That’s global life for you.
But there is a worse scenario. That phrase can increasingly be used by people who work in the same organisation, in the same country, perhaps even in the same team or department.
One of the things that we have noticed as a few more organisations start to organise in person events again after the pandemic is that the two-year hiatus in team activities and the rise of remote working has resulted in massively reduced connection. On practically every event that we have put together for clients since September 2021 the consistently heard phrase is “we have a lot of people who have joined the company in the past two years who have never met with the other members of the team in person”.
Oh, I know what you’re going to say. “But we connect through Teams/Zoom/insert-video-conferencing-app-name-here now. We don’t need to meet in person.”
Yes you do. Perhaps not every day in the office, but video calls are no substitute for actual human interaction. Those of you that know me – and have actually met me in real life – will know that amongst my passions I have an interest in body language and a pathological dislike of conference tables. The two are linked.
Communication is a whole-body activity. From birth you start processing non-verbal signals that radiate from all parts of your body, particularly from the waist down.
No! Not like that! Get your mind out of the sewer…
A huge amount of information about how engaged people are comes from things they do with their legs, feet and hips. You aren’t consciously aware of them, but these subtle signs are instinctively registered when you talk in person. Unless they’re hidden under a table. Or out of vision on your laptop camera.
The first thing we will try to do when we are organising an event is to get rid of the conference tables. You don’t really need somewhere to put your glass of water, or your complimentary event notebook, or your bowl of boiled sweets. It’s much more important to allow people to easily interact, and the removal of a useless big wooden barrier between them is the first part.
Don’t get me wrong. If there is one thing that has come out of enforced remote working it is that people have accepted that turning your camera on is at least expected, and to leave it off is unusual… but don’t think you are engaging with the person on the screen. You’re not looking at them… you’re looking near them.
When you take to the image on your screen, despite the distraction of seeing yourself in the corner of the screen, you’re not looking the person in the eye. You’re not even looking into the camera. You’re looking below the camera (assuming that the lens is at the top of your screen. I once had a laptop with the camera in the bottom left-hand corner, which made it look like I was permanently gazing off into the middle distance, but that’s another story.)
So don’t think that the new members of your remote team have met their new colleagues. They’ve seen them, but they don’t know them. They haven’t worked out the subtleties of their communication styles or their personalities. And don’t think that the team members that you have kept through the past two years are the same people that you interacted with before March 2020. A lot has gone on for a lot of people. Values have shifted. Expectations have changed. Opinions have morphed and been refined.
Another of our mantras is “information is not engagement”. What you get through a computer screen is information. You have to meet in person to experience true, multi-faceted human engagement.
So… “I’m sorry if you’ve never met.”
Colour; Noun (Vicky Holding and Howard Karloff)