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Back to work – shiny shoes, sharpened pencils and a raised eyebrow

Among people’s concerns about going back to the office are:

• Will my work clothes fit?
• Will proper shoes give me blisters?
• Do I really have to shower EVERY DAY!

Of course, these are trivial and amusing but let’s make no mistake, FORTO (Fear of Returning to the Office) is real. Some are dreading the commute, others an oppressive corporate culture of presenteeism. And let’s not even think about all those lockdown puppies……

Very many people, though, have experienced the limitations of remote working:

• Relationships are harder to manage (whether with more senior or more junior colleagues)
• Crises are tougher to solve in isolation
• The lack of physical interaction makes mentoring more challenging
• Research suggests that home workers spend 2 more hours per day at their screens
• There’s no decompression time at the end of the working day
• Remote meetings can be humourless, stilted and sterile, as we try to avoid ‘overtalking’ each other. I think we learned back in April 2020 that banter and Zoom are not happy bedfellows
• Digital communication brings with it a huge potential for misinterpretation.

And so to my favourite topic – communication. What should we be working on when we return to the office? Most people have been away for around 18 months so inevitably we will be a bit rusty.

1. Social cues, and in particular, non-verbal communication. Staring into a screen for so long may have dulled our senses so we need to remember how to read people’s facial expressions and body language again. And we also need to recall how to use these subtle but powerful tools. A raised eyebrow, a shift in posture and a slight hand movement can be very effective in alerting the meeting that you have something to say.

2. Patience and tolerance. When we are in a state of heightened emotion, we process information differently. This is where the potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation arises. I think we’d all agree that most of us are still in such a state (to different degrees, depending on our personal circumstances and our anxiety levels around returning to the office). As givers of information, we therefore need to deliver the message more than once and ensure that it has been accurately received.

As receivers of content, let’s practice API – Assume Positive Intent. PepsiCo Chair and CEO Indra Nooyi considers this the most important leadership advice she was ever given. It’s been a useful guiding principle over the last 18 months and will be similarly relevant during the great migration back to the office.

3. Giving presentations on Zoom/Teams etc has encouraged some unhelpful habits which are not going to translate well into the real world. In particular, writing scripts and simply reading them out while the slides take centre stage on the screen. So we need to break that habit and force ourselves to use bulleted notes (removing all the little filler words) so that we can truly ‘inhabit the content’.

If we’ve created a full script, all our energy is used on reading and reciting. The process of actually thinking about the ideas is missing. This leads to flat, potentially monotone intonation, reduced eye contact and poor audience engagement.

By putting only key words and phrases in the notes, we are forced to form each sentence freshly and to therefore think about the content. It will sound more conversational, the sentences will be shorter, there will be more energy in our delivery, and the audience will feel that we are sharing something with them rather than just saying words out loud.

So, as well as sharpening our pencils and polishing our shoes in readiness to set foot back into the office, let’s remember how to listen, how to engage and how to raise an eyebrow.

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