Missing the office camaraderie

One agency leader longs for the days of water cooler conversations.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I'm not a traditional agency president. My leadership style is very personal. I understand that in the public relations industry our people are our product, so in order to provide the best client service, our people need to be at their best.

In an industry as fast-paced as PR, sometimes that means reminding our team members that we are all human. I once walked around the office in a dinosaur costume just to lighten the mood.

Team morale fluctuates. Of course, we aim to maintain high spirits as often as possible, but peaks and valleys are par for the course in any office environment, and it's exceptionally difficult to keep morale high given the current circumstances. How do we keep team members motivated when each day brings such tragic news? It's almost surreal.

Collaboration is an essential part of our strategic approach. Tools like Zoom make collaboration possible while working remotely, but are not always as productive as being in-person with colorful markers and a whiteboard. There is something missing without the human connection.

But the thing I miss the most about being in an office is the ability to read the room. Body language is everything. I often have lunch in the kitchen or at my desk and casually look around the room to see how I think people are doing.

You'd be surprised how much you can observe by watching someone at their desk for just two minutes. People visibly react to emails. Sometimes they furrow their brows or smile. They place their hands on their face. They shift in their chairs. These are all things I take note of. It's important and interesting to see how they change over time.

It's also important to know how people are doing outside of work. When we're at the water cooler, conversations happen. Folks who aren't involved in the conversation may overhear and join in.

We've started "coffee talk," "water cooler" and "happy hours" on Zoom to check in with people. They are completely optional and some folks never attend. That's fine, by the way, but as a leader, it does make it harder to have a good sense of how they are doing.

With advice and guidance from a few colleagues, I've worked hard the last few weeks on reading digital body language which can be conveyed visually on video but is most often recognized in the words people use in emails and Slack messages.

Digital body language puts more importance on word choice in communication and is an opportunity for all of us to be better communicators and listeners.

I would be remiss not to mention some of the things I've enjoyed leading a team that is working from their living rooms. It's been nice to see people wearing t-shirts and baseball caps or dialing into early morning calls with no makeup and wet hair.

We're seeing tours of apartments. Bookshelves and pets. Children, spouses and parents! Some of these connections are things we never would have had the opportunity to achieve from behind our office desks.

Still, I miss the daily camaraderie, the kind that you only really get from laughing about yet-another Ariana song coming from the office speaker, or which episode of Tiger King everyone watched the night before.

Thankfully, the current challenges we're facing are temporary and I'll be back to observing and leading my team from the office again soon -- only now they'll know my secret observations. Maybe they won't notice I'm watching them though if I dress in my dinosaur costume.

Rachel Hadley is president of Kite Hill Public Relations.

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