Nathaniel Heller, Vice President and Managing Director for Geneva Global, shares how in-person gatherings are still providing value in a post-pandemic world. This article was first published June 13, 2023, on Fast Company. Read Nathaniel’s insights below:
Plenty of ink has been spilled on the value of face-to-face connections for teams and companies that are emerging from the worst of the pandemic-induced period of isolation. We know that permanent remoteness is tough to pull off forever while forcing employees back to pre-pandemic 9-to-5, five-days-a-week work schedules is a recipe for mass exodus without a compelling rationale. Most companies and organizations are navigating a “new normal” and trying to assess what “hybrid” means for their culture, their teams, their clients and customers, and their partners and suppliers.
For many companies, part of the accelerated push to land on the “new normal” is the rapid uptick in in-person meetings, conferences, and work travel that has noticeably increased in the past several months. With those increased moments of in-person togetherness on the road, many company leaders and managers are now asking: Should we be doing the same thing at home and accelerating our own back-to-office journeys?
The answer isn’t the same for every company or organization, but there are some universal principles that appear to be emerging as leaders muddle through this next phase of the COVID-19 endemic period. I recently returned from a three-country, multi-continent work trip where I saw organizations and companies live out the rediscovered value of in-person moments in very different and unique ways. Here are three takeaways from those real-time experiments.
Coffee (or the importance of learning things together)
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and where the ritual of a traditional coffee ceremony—which takes place before, during, or after nearly any meeting or gathering—is fundamental to the national culture. So, when a multinational technology company brought employees from three offices around the world for a week together in Ethiopia, it should come as little surprise that learning about the importance of the local coffee culture was a formative experience. The employees were well-traveled, but learning together about a novel and unique cultural aspect of a new country—something that could truly only be experienced in person—clearly helped form a genuine bond amongst employees from disparate corporate departments whose regular geographic footprint ranged from Shanghai to San Francisco.
The good news is that coffee ceremonies in the Horn of Africa aren’t the only way of generating similar “stickiness” between employees. Even in the absence of traditional 9-to-5 schedules, leaders are recognizing the value of face-to-face moments when they help colleagues and teams learn something new together. Whether traditional skills-building and training sessions or simply sharing tips and tricks over lunch, we’re (re)discovering that these communal learning moments are almost always better in person.
Traffic (or the importance of overcoming challenges together)
After Ethiopia, I hopped over to my local office in Uganda, where I finally had the chance to meet in person dozens of colleagues I’ve worked with virtually for years. Unsurprisingly, this was a truly fantastic moment to hug, shake hands, and share a meal with actual humans instead of Zoom boxes on the screen! But it turned out to be an unexpected challenge that drew us even closer together.
The day after I arrived, we had planned a day trip to the eastern part of the country. Things went fine on the way out, but our trip back was a traffic nightmare. What should have taken 2-3 hours took us north of six hours to accomplish. We finally made it back to the city in one piece, though completely frazzled and drained. Still, it was a genuine bonding experience for all of us in that car—however completely unplanned and unwanted—and we now have a shared experience that binds us together.
That sort of “in the trenches together” moment is something that can only truly be experienced in person, whether pushing past normal working hours in an office to submit a proposal before a deadline; navigating the stress and complexity of airports, taxis, and trains while on the road with colleagues; or being the last one to shut the door and turn off the lights on an office move. These shared in-person experiences help to humanize us to our colleagues and build trust in a way that pays long-term dividends when it comes to collaboration and creativity.
Gelato (or the importance of social time together)
The final stop on my journey was northern Italy to participate in a gathering of leading brands and actors in the sustainable apparel space. The event was full of impressive experts from across the industry participating in compelling panel discussions, breakouts, and participatory co-design sessions.
But I saw people’s faces really light up after the formal conference sessions when the word would go out over WhatsApp: “Who wants to get gelato?” Multiple groups of near-total strangers would organically assemble within minutes and traipse off in search of Milan’s finest Italian dessert treat. Sure, the preceding sessions of expert panels were important and valuable, but it was really the after-hours gelato hunting that struck many as a highlight of their few days together.
I suspect the value of this shared social experience is the one “rediscovery” of the post-pandemic workplace that surprises leaders the least: Happy hours on Zoom are, truthfully, quite depressing. Gelato in person? Hard to beat. Employees being asked to come back to the office (or to attend a conference, or to visit a client or supplier onsite) need at least a modest dose of “gelato factor” to shore up motivation.
Where each of our companies and organizations ultimately lands when it comes to the future of the physical workplace will depend dramatically on our industry, organizational culture, and geography. But the one thing we all share in common is that we employ human beings who need shared in-person experiences to come together as a team. It doesn’t have to happen every day, but it needs to happen on a routine enough basis for trust and mutual respect to become the bedrock of high performance.