A few months ago, I read an article about “fake commutes” and other ways people were re-establishing boundaries between work and home, team time, and “me” time. I joked that I was going to start blocking time to “take a flight” so I could get some focused time not on calls. I never thought I’d miss my coast-to-coast flights, but that time to think and process without interruption was golden.
VIRTUAL RELATIONSHIPS: SHORTCOMINGS, MEET SILVER LININGS
Despite the very real challenges, a year of virtual work and social distancing—not to mention living through a pandemic together—has enriched work relationships in pretty profound ways. It granted us a view into each other’s personal lives that didn’t come as naturally in office spaces. We found remarkable ways to transport in-person experiences to our screens. And it’s made us rethink age-old questions about how we mix work and life.
Our human capital research confirms that as work and home lives blended—as kids, dogs, home decor, life, and errands integrated into the workday—many people formed tighter, deeper, and more authentic connections. And while virtual literally put us all in a box, it ironically forced us to think outside the box. From meetings to celebrating personal milestones, we’ve found new ways to build rapport that created an entirely new dynamic—think “bring your pet to work” day and BYOB virtual happy hour.
One of my favorite stories: When a senior leader was asked about appropriate professional attire, she walked her laptop into her closet and shared her wardrobe. Prior to virtual-as-the-norm, this level of personal revelation would have been highly unusual (maybe even odd). Now it’s a welcomed new possibility.
And of course, the barrier to connection became much smaller when physical and geographical limitations became less of a factor. In a recent Deloitte Greenhouse session, for instance, a senior government official “dropped in” to thank the team—a hugely impactful moment that would have been unlikely if not impossible in a physical setting. At the same time, while the reach and convenience of digital made connecting easier, many found establishing new relationships more difficult. The virtual format challenged some of our traditional approaches for demonstrating empathy and building trust, while the dearth of serendipitous encounters demanded greater energy and intentionality.
PREPARING FOR THE SHIFT TO HYBRID
If virtual hit like an earthquake—little warning, lots of aftershocks, and ripple effects—hybrid is coming at us like a slow-moving storm. It’s unclear how it might play out, but we can make educated guesses and plan accordingly, especially when it comes to work relationships.
• Expect turbulence: It can be easy to idealize in-person interactions when we’re in a fully virtual world, but after the hybrid honeymoon, reality will set in. For many, the excitement to return will quickly be eclipsed by the forgotten challenges of a shared workspace. Indeed, there will be new inconveniences—agreeing on a meeting format (in person? online? both?), negotiating meetings with a mix of faces on screen and people in the room, coordinating and communicating effectively when we’re not sure where anyone might be on a given day (including ourselves). Be patient, laugh easily, and treat it as a new opportunity to connect.
• Be human: The shared experience of COVID and virtual work have created new levels of bonding, empathy, and compassion that will naturally diminish as we move out of crisis mode and back to more normalized in-person interaction. Adjustment will be deeply personal—emotional for many—and will demand the best of all of us. Virtual was a comfort zone for some, acute punishment for others, and a unique point in time that gave pause to everyone. Talk about it directly and be ready for whatever the conversation might bring up.
VIRTUAL IS DIFFERENT FROM FACE-TO-FACE
Research in online communications shows that virtual impressions are more malleable and easily idealized than in-person interactions. With more opportunities for self-awareness, selection, and transmission of preferable cues, it’s easier to optimize self-presentation. Virtual also replaces ongoing interaction that can fill in details and create a more accurate picture of someone.
When interactions are solely virtual, the picture is incomplete, and the first in-person meeting can be a shocking reality check. Even preexisting relationships will have evolved after a year of virtual interaction. Translation: The transition from virtual to face-to-face may be jolting, whether you met someone recently or you’ve worked with them for years. Be prepared as virtual and in-person impressions combine into a more accurate single identity.
JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN BE IN PERSON DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD BE
Using a variety of communication channels is healthy and can actually improve perceived proximity more than physical presence alone. We all have preferences for how we engage based on work styles, personal perceptions of safety, and the ease or perceived energy required for different modes. Match the medium to the purpose: In-person is great for casual connection, ideation, and tough conversations, but not as important for check-ins, quick updates, or simple logistics.
ESTABLISH NEW RELATIONSHIP NORMS AND ROUTINES
Just as virtual pushed us to adapt our work styles and relationships, hybrid will call for new norms, from new relationship routines to alternative ways to engage authentically. More than ever, we’ll need to recognize that how we come across is more than the moment of interaction—it includes our digital footprint, our communities, and how we appear to others when we’re deep in concentration, talking on the phone, or distracted during a Zoom call.
This is the perfect time to ask which rules and norms just don’t make sense anymore, which new approaches deserve further exploration, and what to ignore as temporary bumps while we make our way through the transition. Like every work arrangement before it, hybrid will have days that demand magic tricks, high-flying trapeze work, and vertigo-inducing turns on the tightrope. But ultimately, we’ll settle into routines that work. Some days, it might even feel like the greatest show on earth.