Learn more about Jonathan Lowenhar at ETWadvisors.com.
We’re good at setting goals. Reading reports. Providing updates. Solving problems. We’re terribly efficient in Covid times. We wake up, affix our eyes to screens and barely budge for hours on end. We review roadmaps, project plans, and dashboards. We attend and run meetings with discipline. We’re machines.
And everywhere I look, I see teams fraying at the seams. Great cultures degrading. Loyal employees are spiritless. Once passionate team members with sunken eyes and suffering souls.
There are no team lunches. No serendipitous encounters at the coffee station. No happy hours, birthday parties, or off-sites. No walking into the office together in the morning or out of the office in the evening. No business trips to conferences or visits to customer locations.
We wake up, power on, talk to screens, type, pass out, and repeat. It’s remarkable founders still are puzzled why morale is slipping, and turnover is climbing.
It’s simple. We’re bad at this!
There are two sides to how we interact with each other at work. I’ve written about this previously. What the pandemic has revealed is just how distant the divide is between the two. We know how to run a meeting, but wow, we don’t know how to connect.
And connection matters so much more than most founders realize. People don’t work hard at startups for the money or the glory. There rarely is much of either. They work hard for the vision and the people.
Let’s start with a vision. You’re a candidate for a role. You read some stuff. You watch some videos and peruse blog posts. The founders have you curious. They wish to tackle a big problem. They want to make an impact. You’re excited. Then you join the company and hear directly from the leaders about the mountain to climb. The all-hands meetings, the company parties, the odd lunchroom banter — all drop hints that progress is rich. There is ample opportunity to inquire, to hear others’ questions, and to engage. Your fire is lit.
And the people? There is a buzz in the air. People are moving around the office. There is chatter everywhere. The conference rooms are full. Candidates for open roles are shuttled in and out. You chat not only with the people with whom you directly work, but you encounter folks across the departments. You make new friends. You hear of a sales deal just closed, a partnership agreement nearing completion, a fundraiser underway, and a senior exec soon to join. You’re part of a winning team.
Now imagine that example in Covid times. Onboarding is self-directed; there is no cohort with which to bond. The electricity of an office is replaced by the monotonous drone of endless video calls. Instead of an all-hands stage performance by the founder, it’s a poorly lit Zoom feed. There are no lovely collisions. There are no new friends. No hallway chatter. No access to the wider corners of the org. There is just a policy guide, a PDF of core values, and endless talking heads.
I talk to startup operators/founders all day. I know what they obsess about. How do we run a better meeting? Set a better goal? Hold someone accountable? Hit a better metric? Run a better experiment? How do we have our humans operate with rigorous precision?
Do you know what most of them don’t obsess about? How to create a better connection. More organizational trust. More emotional safety. More joy.
In the before times, the concepts of culture, connection, vulnerability, and trust were the condiments to the main dish. What mattered above all else was operational efficiency, accountability, and measurement. How do we sell more of our stuff faster? The assumption was that if we housed our teams in comfortable surroundings and ensured they had to use the same lunchroom, or walked similar routes to the restrooms, then connection and information sharing would take care of themselves.
That might have been true. But what Covid has revealed is that if our businesses are going to move more disparate, remote, and video-based, we have to rethink how to get closer while still apart. Because the formula of time together breeds understanding, and understanding breeds relationship still feels true to me.
“Time together breeds understanding, and understanding breeds relationship.”
I won’t claim that I have the answers. But there are good ideas out there. Meet your team for socially distant walks, send surprise gifts, and hold the occasional 1:1 on picnic blankets (or under an outdoor space heater). Dedicate more time at the outset of meetings to check in. Model vulnerability by providing real answers to how you’re feeling rather than the perfunctory, “I’m fine.” And perhaps begin journaling to your team — a short letter about how you and the company are managing in Covid times.
I know I personally can do better even with our own team at Enjoy The Work. And no matter what actions we take now won’t replace the juice we’ll all feel when we again can gather safely. But taking some of these actions can be meaningful. It’s something. It’s intentional. It’s agency. It’s a genuine effort to relate to one another rather than just tackle the next task. And that might be just enough to get us through to the other side of this mess.