Aug. 20, 2020

Networking in the time of Corona: How culture survives WFH

If it’s true that what matters not is the grades you make but the hands you shake...the business world could have a major reckoning headed our way.

Networking, fostering, and building relationships is key to success in corporate America and how does doing all that change when we’re working from home, often with no office return date in sight ’til 2021?

Today on Business Casual, we’re figuring it out with Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and an expert in the art and science of maximizing potential for people in organizations and companies.

As Laura explains in the episode, building relationships, boosting morale, and creating culture are paramount to succeeding in business and attracting top talent. Just about none of those things happen easily in a remote work environment. There’s also the individual toll of remote work—we get lonelier more quickly than in an office, and creativity can lag. 

So what are we to do to ensure business as usual stays as usual in this very unusual time? Laura has some tips, tricks, and ideas. Listen now to level up.


Business Casual - Dr Roberts.wav

Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:06] Hi, everybody, and welcome to Business Casual, the podcast from Morning Brew, answering your biggest questions in business. I'm your host and Brew business editor, Kinsey Grant. And now, a quick ask. If you are not subscribed to Business Casual on your listening platform of choice, could you go do that? Thank you. You rock. And now, let's get into it. [sound of a ding]

Kinsey [00:00:28] So I've got a question. When was the last time you had a fortuitous run-in that resulted in a genuine conversation on a video chat that wasn't a Zoom bomb? My bet is never. With vast swaths of the labor force still working from home to stop the spread of COVID-19, we're just not experiencing the kinds of relationship-building moments we might in an office under more normal circumstances. If you do chat with anyone outside your immediate team, it's likely pretty structured and probably a little awkward sometimes, or at least it can be. 

Kinsey [00:00:59] And if it's true that [chuckles] what matters not is the grades you make, but the hands you shake, the business world could have a major reckoning headed our way. Networking, fostering, and building relationships is key to success in corporate America and beyond. So, how does doing all of that change when we're working from home, often with no office return date in sight till 2021? Are we really more productive when we work remotely and even if we are, is that worth the [indistinct] professional relationships are being served right now? And most importantly, how does that [indistinct] vary in severity for certain groups? 

Kinsey [00:01:32] So today, to help us figure it all out, I'm excited to welcome to Business Casual, Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, an expert in the art and science of maximizing potential for people in organizations and companies. Welcome to the show. 

Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business [00:01:50] Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here. 

Kinsey [00:01:54] We are excited to have you. Like I said, you are an expert on creating these kind of lasting workplace relationships and structures. And that's what we'll be tackling some today. How that incredibly [chuckles] important aspect of building businesses to last with teams that last might suffer in this widespread remote work environment. How we can maybe do something about it. There's a lot to unpack here. 

Laura [00:02:15] Definitely. 

Kinsey [00:02:17] So I'll start with a broad question. Do you think that working remotely is good for business and the economy? 

Laura [00:02:24] At this moment in time, I do. I do think that working remotely is good for business, is good for the economy, because it's good for humanity. What we're doing right now is trying to stave off the devastating effects of a global pandemic. And the best tool that we have at our disposal right now is caution. So we have to exercise care and concern for others. We have to prevent unnecessary risks of exposure. And that requires us figuring out how to do some things differently. 

Laura [00:03:06] It's also pushing us, therefore, to innovate, to be more efficient with our time, more efficient with our resources, and in the long run, I think that can also benefit our businesses and our economy. Now we'll talk about the relational costs and all of that, and that's our topic for discussion today. But from a public health standpoint and an innovation standpoint, I think we're making the right decision right now. 

Kinsey [00:03:34] Then this is a good thing and a necessary thing, and — 

Laura [00:03:37] A necessary thing, yeah. 

Kinsey [00:03:37] I just want to reiterate that I am very lucky to be able to do my job from wherever is convenient for me. I know that's not the case for so many people who have been working on the front lines. So, tip of my hat to all of those people who are risking things every day to go out there and do their jobs because I couldn't do it. [laughs] I am a humble podcast host, but, in terms of innovation, I totally agree. 

Kinsey [00:03:59] I think that we are seeing a lot of real creativity come out of this last five or so months. I do wonder if the remote work revolution is what we have characterized it to be. Do you think that it would still be a net good for humanity and innovation without the pandemic if this were just a shift that happened naturally? Do you think that that would be a net good? 

Laura [00:04:20] If we manage it with concern and consideration for others, yes, I do think that it could be a net good. We're finding that a lot of the time and energy that we expended on, you know, [laughs] destination to destination B is now being mitigated so we can conserve that time and energy and focus it on the high-quality interactions. We can be more sensitive and aware of our very needs and schedules and really make the most of the time we have together. We don't take it for granted. 

Laura [00:05:02] And I think that really helps us to be more generative and more productive in the ways that we work. It also provides more flexibility for people who have been burning the candle at both ends for a long, long time and then building in a number of other factors around commuting and face time. And it has some other elements that have been a net drain rather than net gain on a lot of people's work lives in recent years. 

Laura [00:05:35] My caution, though, and this comes from what we're seeing in the data, which suggests that people are working longer hours when they're working from home than when they were working in the office. So, hypothetically, we would create more of this flexibility, the efficiency, and we'd use technology to enhance that. But in reality, it looks like these lines between work and home are getting increasingly blurred. And with that blur, it's actually undercutting the kinds of connections people have professionally and personally. So we've got to manage it delicately. 

Kinsey [00:06:15] Right. And I think it's important to realize how different the perfect world is from the world in which we're currently operating and currently working. Those things all sound really, really great. And I agree that there are varying amounts of net gain and net drain. I want to dig in a little deeper on the relationship aspect here. This is what's really intriguing to me. 

Kinsey [00:06:36] When you think about some of the best moments in a workplace, they're often not planned. It's you all decide to go grab coffee one day, or you run into someone in the kitchen, and that's when great ideas happen in so many cases. So my old econ professor tweeted at me, his name is Jim Casey, posed the question on Twitter, that, it was, I think, phrased as well as I could have myself. People's jobs have historically also been their places for social interaction and connection on a daily basis. So what are the psychological ramifications if we lose those connections? 

Laura [00:07:07] Well, the Gallup Institute has collected data on global employee engagement, and they find that one key factor that enhances engagement is having a close friend at work or having a best friend at work. So those workplace relationships drive the level of engagement or connection we have to our task. Connection we have to our employer; a sense of belongingness in the organization itself. 

Laura [00:07:38] When the quality of our work relationships is compromised, our enthusiasm for our work can wane. So that's one of the costs that organizations should be particularly concerned about. On a human level, we are fundamentally social beings. So we discover our sense of self through relationship. We understand why we're significant. You know, in an existential sense, right? 

Kinsey [00:08:18] Right. 

Laura [00:08:18] Why am I here? What is my sense of purpose? Why does it matter? How am I really making a contribution to this organization or to this team? How am I more than just a cog in a wheel? Oh, I'm more because I have these human connections with the members of my team and other folks in the organization, and that helps me to feel sustained and have a sense of purpose. It also helps me to be more resourceful. I don't have all of the answers. I can't solve all of the problems myself. And when I have more access to other people in the organization, I can tap them. 

Laura [00:08:57] I can check in with them more easily, more spontaneously about this problem for this challenge I might be facing. And it doesn't come across as me having to set this formal meeting to make a big request of them. But it can be, you know, more casual, as you mentioned, more spontaneous. So maybe a little less intimidating for me to just say, hey, I was trying to work on this project. I'm glad I ran into you. Here's where I've gotten so far. 

Laura [00:09:28] Do you have any ideas about how to address this particular challenge that we're having right now? And then, you can get the answer to that. You can get suggestions, you can give feedback, help, support more easily. A lot of folks are really intimidated; if they didn't have those close connections before we went into a remote work environment, they're struggling even more with having to formally initiate those kinds of interactions. And so end of the day, they're not getting the help that they need on tasks. And they're also not getting that validation or affirmation that they need to stay connected to the work and connected to the organization. 

Kinsey [00:10:11] I would love to know what you think the biggest challenges or hurdles that exist in front of us right now to adapt to this new normal that we're experiencing. Is it that we don't have the tech we need? We're not used to using the tech we need, or we're just not used to remote work in general. What is the biggest headache in this—in creating and forming relationships? 

Laura [00:10:33] I think the biggest challenge is all of the uncertainty and anxiety and grief that the pandemic introduces. I mean, we're living in an incredibly stressful period in history and it's impacting everyone in unique ways. But we all share a level of uncertainty, confusion, grief, and loss over the changes and a sense of discomfort or fear about what the future will hold and how we can continue to be effective and capable and empowered in navigating the world around us. 

Laura [00:11:18] I think the technological tools have become available pretty quickly and in a widespread way, such that lots of folks have adapted to this [laughs] new forum who, six months ago, would have said, never. No way, forget it. And now we're just zipping back and forth from one web conferencing platform to another with a fair amount of ease. 

Laura [00:11:49] So within a certain socioeconomic group, that level of facility with technology and the access to technology is certainly there. We can talk about wealth inequality and occupational segregation. And in this type of world, there are certain households that are being left out of the communications and the opportunities for education, for healthcare, for employment, and so forth, because they may not have access to the technology or be able to use technology in the same ways. So we do want to be mindful of that as organizations are trying to build the communication channels. 

Laura [00:12:38] A good example of this from a very large hospital system that I worked with, and I was talking to the leaders a few months ago, they talked about one of the big shifts that they had to make in mass communications during the initial months—initial weeks—of the pandemic. They were sending out all of these updates on email about safety protocol. And then they realized that so many of their frontline workers—they don't check email accounts. They may not even have email accounts. They need text messages. 

Laura [00:13:08] And the text messages need to go out in multiple languages because English may not be their first language. But it took them a few weeks to realize. They thought they were doing all of this to reach out and connect technologically, and they were missing an entire swath of the organization who needed this essential information that they were trying to communicate. 

Kinsey [00:13:30] Yeah. It's such an interesting concept here, I think, that often is underrepresented in the dialog around the challenges of working from home is that those challenges disproportionately affect different groups. You wrote a really interesting piece for Harvard Business Review about being Black during remote work. 

Laura [00:13:47] Yes. 

Kinsey [00:13:48] Tell me more about this. This is, I think, such an interesting concept. This idea of code switching is something that we have been talking about a lot more. But when you open up your home on a Zoom call or a Google Hangout, it's far more than just going into the workplace and being your work personality. You have to totally become more intimate [chuckles] with the people around you. And at times, that doesn't work. 

Laura [00:14:11] Yes, it's a unique set of challenges. Everybody creates some professional profile or work persona that feels comfortable for them and provides them a way to navigate their work environment, but also manage some of the boundaries between their at-work self and their outside-of-work self. And so I think that's kind of a shared experience that lots of folks are having [laughs] right now on Zoom. Like, oh, my gosh, now I'm showing my coworkers my pets, my kids, my partners. 

Laura [00:14:48] My partner might not be dressed up as if we were having a plus-one outing where we'd all be fancy. No, I'm in a meeting, but my partner is walking around in a T-shirt and shorts and like, what's all that about? OK, so we take that as our big splash of cold water. We want to be connected. Technology allows us to be connected. But we, in general, are not at all accustomed to, or comfortable with, this forum of connecting, which involves bringing people into our homes at all hours of the day for sustained periods of time and not being able to control what else happens in the background and in the environment. 

Laura [00:15:34] Then we add other dynamics around race, gender, and class stereotyping, and it means that some individuals are even more self-conscious or even more vulnerable, or perhaps both, when they're in these intimate video conferencing spaces. So if your home is not as elaborate as some of your coworkers' homes, or maybe you like, some of our college and graduate students, had to log in to class to get your credit, but you're sitting in the bathroom because that's the only quiet place that you can have your class. 

Laura [00:16:18] But some of your other classmates may be in much more elaborate surroundings. You could be more self-conscious of that and feel more vulnerable, like you're having to reveal more about your circumstances than are other people. Then, there are a lot of the signals that people read into our environment about our cultural affiliation. So wealth or social class is one versus poverty or, you know, lack of resources. 

Laura [00:16:45] But others have to do with your ethnic and cultural affiliation. Do you have Black artwork on the walls of your home? And what kinds of interpretations will others make about your racial ideology and your commitment to the firm if they see Black artwork on the walls? That's not the usual backdrop when you're having conversations with them. Now they're seeing this other dimension of you. How are they reading into these little symbols or signals that they have? 

Laura [00:17:18] We also wrote about what it means for women of color to have their young children at home, learning at home, virtual camping from home over the summer, and then rolling into the fall, learning hybriding, whatever it's all looking like. We've completely blurred these boundaries that many people carefully construct around being a mother and being a worker, because the stereotype is you can't be committed to both. 

Laura [00:17:53] Either you're all-in on parenting and you outsource or you downgrade your career, or you're all-in on your career and you outsource, you downgrade. And we know that that's not true. That's not how people live. People always live these multiple realities, but they don't showcase as much of their career life when they're doing their PTA work and when they are doing their career work, they are not talking as much about their children. And you certainly are seeing their child in the background having a temper tantrum. 

Laura [00:18:28] So that's something all women experience. For women of color in particular, because the stereotypes are even more negative about their professional potential or there are assumptions that they will be taking on caregiving roles, which historically they have within our society, been the ones who have been responsible for raising their own children and raising a lot of other people's children as well. It just adds more of the backdrop or context. 

Laura [00:19:04] And so we wrote about that. There's a lot more you could say. There's so many places you could go with that. But those are just a couple of the different layers that have emerged in today's world when we're talking about forming these relationships and, quote unquote, bringing our whole selves to work. 

Kinsey [00:19:22] Right. Right. And I think it's important to recognize it's not like these are just missed connections at work and missed opportunities to collaborate on things. This is opening our whole selves up to so many different variables and vectors that it's not just the "Well, I wish we had some time to chat," it's also I have to be, in some cases, a different person than I typically would be for a normal workplace conversation. Even if you're my work best friend, you've probably not been in my bedroom [laughs] and always, regardless of a pandemic, a more empathetic workplace and a workplace that takes a more holistic approach to building culture and building community and helping foster relationships is going to be a more successful workplace. 

Laura [00:20:01] True. True. 

Kinsey [00:20:03] So these are enormous shifts in the way that we work, and that obviously means learning new skills. We're going to talk a little bit more about how we build those new skills, what those skills are, in just a second. But a short break to hear from our partner and we'll be right back. —

Kinsey [00:20:20] And now back to the conversation with Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts. If you had to pinpoint, let's say, one important skill that people could try to work on right now in order to effectively build and foster relationships remotely, what would it be? 

Laura [00:20:36] One skill. 

Kinsey [00:20:38] Right. It could either be technical or a little less technical. [laughs]

Laura [00:20:42] OK. Listening. Listening. 

Kinsey [00:20:47] I'm listening. [laughs] OK. And why is that? 

Laura [00:20:51] Active listening. In order to build a skill in listening, you have to become really smart at asking good questions. I think people focus a lot more on expressing themselves, their thoughts, their feelings, their beliefs, their opinions, their needs, or being frustrated because they didn't express those but are still absorbed in our own need and expression, whether we're verbalizing it or not. Like, that's where our energy and our thoughts are focused. 

Laura [00:21:22] When we shift to intentional listening, we start to ask different questions. We seek to understand other people's experiences, to learn more about their frame of reference, to discover their inner genius, which is always a cool thing for me—to be able to figure out what it is that somebody else is really great at doing. And then, as we talked before, to be able to develop some of the compassion that's needed around wherever they are in that space. 

Laura [00:22:02] There's so much going so quickly right now, that so much is changing so quickly right now, that we can't assume that we know what people need and how things should work best or could work best in our organizations. We profoundly transformed so many different aspects of our work lives and our work relationships. We have to keep checking in to listen and understand, you know, what was working well, what isn't working well. If we were to pivot, what would that require of each of us and then be able to go from there? 

Laura [00:22:44] We'd listen well. We can discover and develop the solutions that we need to solve these complex problems and challenges. 

Kinsey [00:22:51] Yeah, for sure. I think I have to wonder why this wasn't happening before we went remote. A manager or just a coworker who listens more seems like a good thing. [laughs] How come this is a priority now and it wasn't six months ago? Or do you think it was?

Laura [00:23:10] I think it always should have been a priority. I think, before the world was upended, people navigated the world by trying to prove their expertise in their authority. So show 'em what you got, right? And especially if you were a leader, you would fall into this frequent trap of proving your legitimacy as a leader by pretending like you had the answers to all of the problems and the challenges that people face. Well, truth is, you never did. 

Laura [00:23:55] But now, [laughs] [indistinct talk from Kinsey] the challenges and problems we're facing are so massive, you can't even fake it. This is a fake it till you make it. Yeah. No, that's not going to happen now. You can fake it and all of the apples are going to just fall right out of the cart. So let's just go, with intent, to be able to learn and understand as best we can so that we can demonstrate the resilience we need and deal with the crises and strengthen our organizations so that we can move forward into whatever this new zone of operating is going to look like. 

Kinsey [00:24:34] So since we have been operating in this widespread remote environment, have you seen that happen? Have we accomplished this more earnest kind of workplace? 

Laura [00:24:45] I think in many ways we have. Let's talk the combination of COVID and racial justice has led to a proliferation of task forces and organizations. [chuckles] And in those task forces, you're bringing together multiple stakeholders, and you're asking them for their perspectives. I've talked to so many leaders in the past two months who say, we were siloed. We didn't talk to each other in these other parts of the enterprise. We still don't for a lot of other things except when it came to COVID. 

Laura [00:25:20] Then we had to come around the table together and we had to come up with joint statements or create policies that were going to affect the entire enterprise. But we could no longer function as if, you know, what happened within our sphere wouldn't effect what happened in other people's spheres. So I think that's a great example that people are being more thoughtful and intentional about this intense collaboration and the listening and learning that goes along with it. 

Kinsey [00:25:53] Right. It's such an interesting dichotomy. I think maybe that's a bit of a dramatic word. But to see that culture is something that, at times, has suffered throughout this remote work experience, that it's difficult to navigate a company's culture to actually see it in practice instead of just in theory. But at the same time, we're seeing a lot of corporations come out and actually take a stand, verbally [laughs] making it clear what their priorities and what their morals and their missions are, more so than we had in in previous months and years. 

Kinsey [00:26:25] I want to talk a little more about other things we will and will not experience in the coming months. We're going to do that in just a second. But really quickly, a short break to hear from our partner. —

Kinsey [00:26:36] And now back to the conversation with Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts. So let's say—I got a hypothetical for you—let's say we get a vaccine in the next month or two. Do you see the corporate world going back to the office like normal, or do you think that the world will look meaningfully different in the next coming months with a vaccine? Let's say it's safe to go back to the office. 

Laura [00:27:01] I think we have crossed a technological threshold that will stand the test of time. There are already tech firms and consulting firms who have announced remote work at least through the end of 2021, if not longer, and some of them are doing so because they've realized that they can get the work done remotely with a lot less overhead. 

Laura [00:27:34] And, [laughs] if you're a consultant and your clients are now equally invested in having you meet with them virtually instead of having to get on a plane and fly to meet this team in India, then fly to meet this team in Germany, then meet this team in Singapore, then this team in Manhattan, 'cause everybody feels like they need to be seen and they need to have that one-on-one contact and presence with you. 

Laura [00:28:03] I mean, you've just saved, like, $30,000 [indistinct talk from Kinsey]. Exactly! Because you said, wait, we could either meet virtually by office or we could bring everybody together virtually and accelerate our collaborative work together in that forum. So bottom line, the technological threshold has been crossed. People are finding that there are economies of scale and lower overhead by doing so. And so they'll continue to use some forms of remote work in some professions and in some occupations. But in others, no, not so much. 

Kinsey [00:28:49] Right. I sometimes find myself wondering in this conversation if we're prioritizing things like cost savings over the more human aspects of why we do what we do. Innovation and creativity and connection are all very human things. Is putting a screen in front of us, instead of you and I sitting down face to face, going to hinder that innovation and creativity and cooperation? 

Laura [00:29:15] I think it will as long as the technology still has the performative aspect, and for many people, being on video conference still very much feels like a performance. So it's harder for people to shift into a collaborative, innovative zone. I mean, just think about the fact that if you're sitting in a brainstorming session or a working group all day, you are not staring at yourself in the mirror. Now you are. 

Laura [00:29:46] So you're much more self-conscious about how you're coming across. And that means you have a harder time putting ideas out there. You just have more self-monitoring involved. And so you're probably going to withhold some of those different ideas that you may have had otherwise. So that's one. And the other is the spontaneity piece. 

Kinsey [00:30:08] Right. Right. 

Laura [00:30:09] It's like, you can't say, we're going to come up with a great idea at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday. It's more like, wait, I just had a thought. [indistinct chatter from Kinsey] Yes, yes, yes. That's where you have the time for doing that. 

Kinsey [00:30:22] All right. OK. I've got one more big question for you here. Our last guest, Matt Mullenweg from Automattic, who is a remote work evangelist, a huge fan, has built an entirely distributed workforce, argued that the remote work trade-offs that do exist are worth it because, in one example, you can offer economic opportunity to people who might not have otherwise gotten it. So instead of only being able to hire from, say, New York or San Francisco or D.C., you can hire from across the country, stimulate local economies in different parts of the world. Do you think that that is accurate? I guess, agree or disagree? 

Laura [00:30:58] I agree. From a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint, I do believe that remote work provides greater access for talented people all over the world to be able to connect with and align with the jobs where they can maximally contribute from a position of strength. There's certain regions of the country, for certain cities that have more and less diversity, demographically. When we're using remote work options, we can bring in a wider array of perspectives and not have to just rely on who's there or who isn't there. And the local surrounding. 

Laura [00:31:39] It also provides a greater entre for people who need flexible work arrangements for a variety of reasons. We know that we were already entering into the age of the gig economy, and in the gig economy, people are using the technology and the resources at their disposal so that they could take on projects and tasks that worked with their schedule and worked with their skill set. As we're embracing remote work, that just helps to accelerate the opportunities for people to work in that way. 

Laura [00:32:16] And the gig economy has a very strong representation of people of color and women, who aren't always selected into the high-potential roles for the training and development programs and organizations, but choose entrepreneurship as a way to grow, develop in their careers, and to exhibit leadership within their field of interest. 

Kinsey [00:32:43] Absolutely. I love coming kind of full circle in this conversation about looking to the future and looking at the increase in opportunity for so many more people around the world. I've got one more question for the road. What advice would you give a recent college grad looking to enter the workforce right now, but might be having trouble getting that first foot in the door to create the kind of relationships you need to have a successful professional life? 

Laura [00:33:11] Oh, to create the kind of relationships you need to have a successful professional life, the best thing you can do right now is take the initiative. Reach out, ping people, ask them if you can do a informational interview with them. There are even lower barriers to that then there would have been before. 

Laura [00:33:31] You don't have to go to someone's office. You don't have to find time on their schedule. A lot of people who spent a lot of time on airplanes don't have that clouding their schedule right now either. So you might be able to squeeze in a 45-minute coffee or lunch or opportunity just to connect and learn more about a field and industry. People are also really focused on goodwill and community building right now because we've been in this experience of global crisis and pandemic. And it helps people to feel like they're able to support and develop others. 

Laura [00:34:12] So take advantage of that. It's going to lift someone else's spirit by having the opportunity to connect with you. Use that refrain. This could be a gift to someone else. Someone out there is lonely, looking for somebody to advise, to counsel. And I'm here, you know, ready to take it in. 

Kinsey [00:34:35] Yeah, absolutely. As we at Business Casual like to say, just send the email. The worst thing you can get is no. 

Laura [00:34:41] There you go. [chuckles]

Kinsey [00:34:41] Thank you so, so much for coming on Business Casual today. I learned so much. I think sometimes trying to tackle a concept like relationship building can be a little difficult because it is so big and has so many different variables and facets to the conversation. But I really feel a lot clearer idea of why it impacts the business, how it impacts the business. And I'm really grateful for the insight. So thank you so much for taking the time. 

Laura [00:35:06] Thank you. I appreciate it. 

Kinsey [00:35:10] Awesome!

Kinsey [00:35:19] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. I hope you learned as much as I did. If you haven't already, I would love it if you would sign up for my new Business Casual column. It's a free weekly newsletter that comes out on Sunday evenings and you're gonna love it. Head to Business That's Business to get the column, and I'll see you next time. [sound of a ding]