For the first time in my life, I saw the truth … that Love, Meaning and Connection are the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire –Viktor Frankl
The first big theme that my book focuses on as a source of both risk and opportunity during change is the idea of Belonging.
The chapter in my book that tackles this theme, begins with an unequivocal research finding that still blows my mind– namely that the single biggest predictor of our health, happiness and longevity is our sense of connectedness to one another.
This past year, we’ve all of us lived the truth of that, have we not? It’s not the hours with our bum on an ill-fitting office chair that’s doing for us, not the incessant biscuit eating or explaining fronted adverbials to a seven year old (well, maybe it is that a little bit…). What’s really hurting and making us feel so out of sorts, to the point where it can even threaten our very sense of who we are, is our disconnection from one another.
The roots of this are old and deep. When a change comes – especially one that comes fast, unexpected and unwelcome, as the pandemic did – our newer, outer brain, the neocortex, sets to work, grappling with facts and making sense of things. Our older, faster limbic brain, however, is going berserk. Threat! Threat! Threat!It deals in relationships and loyalty and trust, and it doesn’t like what is going on one bit.
In the early days of the pandemic, I really struggled to sleep. I would lie awake at night, thinking about the 16,500 people in my firm, suddenly cast adrift from one another. My neocortex was busy writing lists of priorities and actions. How could we reach everyone? How could we keep them connected? How could this firm still feel like home?
Meanwhile, though my limbic brain was grieving – I’d picture all these people floating away from one another like fireflies, shaping and breaking into constellations of stars on the bedroom ceiling, and big tears would fill my ears and soak the pillow.
The book proposes three areas of focus to help engender a sense of belonging during periods of change:
- helping people to feel at home in their environment and in the cadences and routines of their working day;
- supporting people to connect with each other; and
- nurturing a common sense of identity.
So, how might we approach each of those areas in the context of a pandemic? And how might that prompt us to rethink or deepen the ideas in the book?
Let’s get stuck in and talk about the environment first. The book focuses almost exclusively on the physical environment, and this certainly matters – think about that walk from the station to your desk, the smell of coffee in client meeting rooms, that painting you love on the wall in the lift lobby, the deft way you could nudge your way through the security turnstile with your hip while holding a pile of papers and a laptop (My reference point is an office. If a day in your normal life routinely involves a shop floor, a factory, a construction site, a hospital, you will have equivalent touch points.)
These are the things that make work feel like a home. I was so bereft when first unable to go to our offices in Fitzrovia in London that I wrote a poem about it.
For many of us, lockdown has turned the idea of feeling at home at work on its head. Instead, we need to feel at work at home. The way the camera allows us into each others’ spaces is remarkable. We’ve met each other’s children and pets, commented on each others’ bookshelves and soft furnishings. It’s been interesting to see how we’ve all dealt with that.
Knowing each other in this new way has perhaps supported the relationship aspect of belonging (see below), but being at home does make it very difficult for leaders to use the surrounding environment per se as a tool to support belonging. In the early days of lockdown, we did see some attempts to do this – a few proudly using corporate mugs, or displaying firm projects in their backgrounds – but nothing really seems to have stuck.
What does seem to have stuck, though, after a few months of disorientation and experimentation is a commitment to using the routines and cadences of our working day to tether us to one another. Perhaps we can call this our temporal environment? Some leaders I speak to have daily team check-ins; others use set times of the day as a ‘virtual office’, opening calls where the whole team can dial in and come and go as the please, talking or not, about work, or last night’s Netflix. Others have fortnightly drinks evenings, or breakfast together once a week. The little bit of certainty that routine confers pleases that limbic brain of ours.
As we move forward, with at least the world of office work expecting to be changed forever, leaders need to be intentional in how they rig both the physical environment and the temporal environment to feel like somewhere their people can belong.
Above all though, leaders need to be paying attention to the psychological environment. In the aftermath of all that has unfolded this past year, and in the light of all we’ve learned about the critical importance of inclusion, it’s perhaps the most urgent role of leaders to work to create a context within which everyone can flourish. We talk about psychological safety, but that seems to me a dispiritingly low bar – we need to be cherishing our people, not just keeping them from harm.
Leaders influence the psychological environment every time they decide who to give air time to in a meeting, every time they make eye contact and ask the next question of the person who hasn’t spoken yet, every time they challenge an assumption, ask to be educated about something they don’t understand, listen deeply, invest in the growth of a team member by nudging them out of their comfort zone.
Leaders should wake up every morning, look at that constellation of star souls on their ceiling and be 100% committed to ensuring that every single one of them stays shining.
Regular meetings and touch points also support belonging by keeping people in relationship with one another. This is like an enormous web – people need to connect in to the very centre of their firm, they need to connect locally in teams based on geography and expertise, and they need to be able to connect laterally, well away from any organised, firm-initiated structures.
Note that feeling connected requires a lot more than feeling ‘communicated with’. This is not about a business being in broadcast mode; it’s about meaningful intimate connection between human beings – it can’t be scaled, standardised or rushed. It can feel forced, time-consuming and awkward. It’s about all of us showing up for one another, time and again, giving each other the gift of our attention.
Yes, it’s hard to do remotely. We miss so many non-verbal cues and opportunities to connect. I’ve spent a lot of time this year feeling that my intuition is broken. But time and care, eye contact through the camera, and really close listening do help us to stretch those threads of connection across oceans. One of my loveliest, if surreal, moments came late one night late last year, when I was talking one to one from my home in London with a colleague based in San Francisco. It was a tough and whole-hearted conversation, and at one point I adjusted my feet and accidentally hit the table leg. Immediately, I apologised and moved my foot: for the briefest moment, across thousands of miles, she had felt so entirely present to me that I believed I had kicked her!
The question of identity is a critical one. It’s also complicated and nuanced. Some aspects of our identity are our choice; others are gifted to us; other aspects still are a function of the assumptions other people make. We all have numerous identities, as individuals and as members of groups and teams.
For businesses, there is a subtle and dynamic tension between inculcating a truly diverse and inclusive culture where all are cherished precisely because of their uniqueness, and developing a common sense of identity.
For leaders, the task is layered. It is a vital part of a leaders’ role to see the individual – to reassure them in times of change that they are seen, and valued, and belong. As leaders we need to give our people the gift of our attention. Put down your phone. Stop scrolling those emails. Get curious – what’s this person’s story? why did that person make the choices they’ve made? what is life like for the single working mum in your team? for the apprentice living away from home for the first time? for the senior guy approaching retirement who has never worked anywhere else? Ask your people how you can help them. Lighten their load now and then. Say thank you. Remember the names of their kids and their dog. Buy them cake.
Another part of a leaders’ role is to engender a common sense of identity – even when we are far apart, we are still a team. This involves telling stories, creating shared experiences, being the holder of that shared history, using ‘we’ not ‘I’, holding the mirror up, reminding the team of the progress they’re making even when the going is heavy, celebrating success, figuring out how to get everyone’s skin in the game, demonstrably listening and responding to ideas, simplifying, holding the line, making the tough calls. This is the leader as a sense-maker, purpose-shaper and storyteller – all themes we shall see much more of in due course.