Pandemic is the word we are looking at right now — a world-wide emergency that is not just a small concern but a real life-and-death situation for many among us. This is disrupting our society in ways we never imagined. The only way to #ﬂattenthecurve is to avoid physical contact with others, restrict travel and be reasonable while moving around in public areas.
This has put the spotlight on so many of the hidden or taken-for-granted dynamics of doing business around the world. One of the most frequently voiced concerns here in Germany is, how I do win contracts, ﬁnd new clients/markets, make deals if I cannot travel, shake hands, look people in the eye? The one word that comes up when we explore the “why” of the above concern is “trust”. How can I build trust if I can’t be in a room with a person?
In his book “Homo Deus” historian-author Yuval Noah Harari states that humans are masters of their environment not just because we have big brains (dolphins have a bigger brain-to-body ration), but because we can cooperate in large numbers over large distances. This we do without ever having met each other! This should deﬁnitely be considered a miracle because some times we don’t even get along with our own families, whom we have known all our lives, but ﬁrmly believe that a coffee plantation worker in Costa Rica (that I have never met, and probably will never meet) will be sending me my morning coffee! Enter the magic of trade — this is a collective faith. It works only when all of us believe in it and trust each other to hold up our end of the bargain. So why is it that we are mistrustful of “virtual communication”? Why do we believe that this is not as effective as my belief in the plantation worker in Costa Rica?
There are of course a myriad things involved in the process of my morning coffee getting to me from the plantation and it involves thousands of people, including people who don’t even know that they are in the coffee business, like stakeholders of some company, which in turn has a small stake in that particular plantation. But the chain as such, works. It works because every link in that chain trusts the link just before and just behind it to make it work. Now how do we take this model into the virtual world? How can we build the same kind of relationships online and also sustain that?
Most business relationships nowadays start through E-Mails. We ﬁnd someone online who looks like a promising partner/client/customer/supplier etc and reach out to the relevant department. That part is easy.
The key is the follow-up and then sustaining that trust though constant contact. The worst thing you can do after the ﬁrst contact is just keeping everything to E-Mail, although it is tempting to do that as it offers asynchronous communication. Instead call that person. With the advance of video conferencing and broadband internet we need not abstain from face-to-face contact, even if there is no physical contact. Try a quick catch-up through a call. In that call you can then set up a protocol to address the following:
- when and how to talk to each other (which channels)
- time limit
- which parts of the negotiation/project management will take place through which channel
It is always important that this is done through consensus and not a one-sided decision depending on what is convenient for one party. Especially, in areas with poor internet connection, or lack of reliable electricity video conferencing might be difﬁcult, so plan accordingly.
Imagine the following scenario: you have agreed with your client to have a video conference when you know your connection could be a problem, and the call drops in the middle of your conversation. This would only lead to loss of trust. So what are some things you can do to build trust while remote working?
Best Practises For Remote Working
- Check your connection, microphone and camera before you start but be prepared for problems nevertheless
- Be patient, open and respectful if the other party faces any technical issues
- Most important as you go into this meeting, is the mindset that this is as good as being in a room with the other person. This mindset helps you be as animated and natural as you would be in a room. Practise before hand if you want to, just as you would prepare for a meeting in person
- Dress the part even if you are working from home
- Let the other party know that you are working from home and if you have children that might need your attention, just let them know that too. If they know the circumstances under which you are working, people are mostly accommodating of them.
- Set-up your environment to be as comfortable, friendly and as orderly as you would like it to be, but if you do get distracted by your child walking-in or a door bell, apologise and carry on.
- Be aware of language barriers and allow time for clariﬁcations and translations
- Actively pay attention to the body language and tone
The last one could be stressful if one party prefers low-context communication (everything is spelt out clearly) and if the other is from a high-context culture (communicates through non-verbal signals). The former will have to train to watch out for those non-verbal signals through grainy video and audio. The other party will have to try stay focussed till the whole plan is put in words, and not miss any detail. If we add language barriers to this mix, it might look like a herculean task. Hence, the last best practise I can share with you is, allot time for self-care.
Self-care To Balance Remote Working
The practice of mindfulness is a great way to both prepare oneself for a stressful situation and to ﬁnd one’s balance afterwards.
Here are somethings that help me:
I choose a small unobtrusive object to keep in my line of sight. I try to be attentive during the call but if my mind wanders, the object reminds me to come back to the conversation — to stay in the moment. After the call or a class, I write down my thoughts and ideas in a book I keep. And then I put away the object and the book. After this, I either reach out to my family and friends (my energy sources) or look for an activity away from my desk — walk in the nature, cooking or even doing a grocery run. All of this is always accompanied by the mantra “be present in the task”.
We have been forced into this situation of remote working and virtual collaboration overnight and it is a struggle due to many reasons. But if we can switch to the mindset that connecting virtually with someone is still a human connection, we can adapt to this new reality of virtual communication.
As the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says “We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.”