The Human Touch — WWCD (What Would Cilla Do)?
(Originally published on LinkedIn, July 2021)
(Freshly washed) Hands up if you’re heading back to the office soon.
Quite a few of us, I would imagine. We’ll be meeting people that we have come to know intimately (in an office kind of way) over the last 18 months. It’s been like the world’s longest Blind Date with your boss playing the part of Cilla.
Those of us who have had experience of online dating know the pitfalls. Perhaps a Catfish or two / love at first sight / ‘meh’. Working cheek-by-jowl again with people we may have never met could turn out to be like that — we may have built a really great working relationship with someone who we think is an all round ‘good egg’, only to discover in the workplace they microwave fish in the communal microwave and are always late to meetings. Conversely, someone who we have never ‘clicked’ with online may turn out to be our new lunch buddy / confidante. Who knows?
For the last 18 months we are unlikely to have been anywhere near anyone outside of our government appointed ‘bubble’. Sure, we’ve all had plenty of Teams / Zoom meetings, and perhaps remote ‘social events’ at work, but that’s not really the same.
I’ve been wondering how much that physical proximity matters at work. It goes without saying that personal space is paramount, and touching anyone without their ‘permission’ is a big ‘No’ (those that have known me at work know that I don’t do hugs, for example), butI think the majority of us subconsciously use touch and the physical presence of others to read body language, display subtle signs or help build rapport.
It’s Not Just Head and Shoulders, it’s Eyes, Knees and Toes, too.
In November 2019 Harvard Business School listed 8 Essential Leadership Communication Skills. Within 4 months of the article, two of these skills would become even more essential, yet almost impossible to execute effectively in a remote situation:
- Ability to Adapt Your Communication Style
- Open Body Language
Think about that for a second. Within the space of a few weeks, a monumental paradigm shift in accepted leadership theory occurred. Being able to adapt our leadership style was no longer a choice, it was a necessity. Even when we were able to see those we worked with / led, it didn’t mean that all was plain sailing.
Eye contact? Forget it — you may think you’re looking someone in the eye while on video, but it’s ersatz eye contact. In a group setting it’s impossible to know who is looking at you, another attendee or even if they’re really present. Can you imagine experiencing that in a real office meeting room? Picture a scene where you’re sharing some super-duper PowerPoint presentation you’ve sweated over. Just when you reach the most enthralling part of your visual feast, you look around the room… Jimmy is busy looking at Susan. Susan is browsing Amazon for nose flutes and egg timers. Tarquil is listening to Thrash Metal at full volume and fantasising about the day he can leave this all behind and become a tree surgeon, and Betsy is on mute with her camera off watching The Crown. This is an extreme and unlikely example, but it makes the point — eye contact and physical presence not only help us build rapport and relationships, they also help hold others accountable for being present in the moment.
There have been wins, though. I doubt whether ‘proper’ business attire will be a thing anymore. If you want to rock up to work in jeans and a hoodie because that’s who you are, then I say do it. If you want to wear business attire, then do that. It. Doesn’t. Matter. If you do a great job, feeling comfortable and treating others with respect, then it can only be a good thing. The same goes for where you work — if it can be done either in the office, at home or a Starbucks for part of the week with no detriment to your team, then you should be able to do it.
The Human Touch
Leading a new team in these times is hard — especially when you haven’t met some (or any) of those who you serve as a leader. Personally, I’ve had to manage folk who I haven’t even seen, their right to remain visually anonymous being exercised. None of the usual visual clues are there to help you interact with, inspire and engage. I’ve made some spectacular mistakes, but also had some successes that have surprised me — it’s amazing how we can adapt to something so unthought of two years ago. Addressing a ‘room’ full of circles with initials in them now feels natural, if at times a bit stilted. Perhaps in years to come, our CV will list ‘Anonymous Leadership’ as a key skill.
Someone who I think has exemplified the human touch in a brave new world of remote work is T im Peacock. Tim left the Test and Trace programme last week and will be sorely missed. He hired me, like many others, without meeting me (our paths have crossed at Heathrow before, but to my shame I didn’t remember). The reason the team works so well is down to, in no small part, Tim’s skilful and inspiring navigation of a leadership role that was as new to him as it was to us. I think it’s got to do with Tim’s demonstrable humanity — his clear and non-negotiable vision of what he saw as more than a job, but also a service to others. No cynicism, no corporate sloganising. Just professional, sincere care about his team and the job they do.
It’s not something that’s easy to define, this remote human touch in leadership. Someone else I have worked for managed to inspire a great team while folding the washing and allowing her young daughter to chat to us when she came home from school. None of us on her team found this to be anything other than ‘human’ and relatable.
In conclusion, while I don’t think anything can really replace the impact of physical presence when working with others, I do think it’s possible to lead, engage and inspire others remotely in other ways that can be almost as impactful. Workplace norms have largely been unchanged in decades, but necessity to adapt recently can become the mother of invention of a new way of work, benefitting the bottom line, those we lead and also ourselves.
I’m not sure the poem below is just about a physical type of touch. At the time of publication the author, Spencer Michael Free had been a physician for 39 years, so of course knew the value of touch as a diagnostic tool, but he was also passionate about the arts. He knew the value of music, campaigning to bring it back to the public-school curriculum and was a Rotary Club organiser for many years. I think he understood, almost a hundred years ago that the way we ‘touch’ others can take several different guises, each effective in their own way.
“The Human Touch.”
’Tis the human touch
in this world that counts,
The touch of your hand and mine,
Which means far more
to the fainting heart
than shelter and bread and wine.
For shelter is gone
when the night is o’er,
And bread lasts only a day.
But the touch of the hand
And the sound of the voice
Sing on in the soul always.
Free, Spencer Michael. “The Human Touch.” The Human Touch & Other Poems, International Journal of Surgery Co., Inc, 1925