Staying Connected While Staying Apart

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Chair Of The Month

Stephanie Douglass
Stephanie Douglass
Stephanie Douglass is regional consulting leader for HOK’s Washington D.C. office. She specializes in helping companies with workplace transformations, including strategic planning and change management.

During this time of social distancing, Stephanie Douglass of HOK shares some tips to help us become better connected to our colleagues and our clients in a meaningful way. 

staying connected at home

We are in uncharted waters. The global scale of the coronavirus pandemic, the speed at which it is evolving, and the severity of its impact are new challenges for everyone. As individuals and as organizations, we are all scrambling to keep up with this new reality.

With the sudden and critical need for social distancing, most companies are adapting in ways they had not anticipated. For knowledge workers, this includes a mass transition to working from home. While many organizations had offered remote working prior to coronavirus, most (including ours) still required people to come into the office for face-to-face interaction, and the vast majority of organizations still utilize in-person meetings as the most effective way to connect and communicate with clients.

Now that in-person contact isn’t feasible, how do we maintain meaningful and productive connections with our colleagues and clients? At HOK, we’re addressing this question by focusing on the following three areas:

1) Communication tools

We work with a wide range of clients around the globe and utilize a number traditional and new technologies to stay connected with them. Many of the existing modes of communication—email, phone, text, videoconferencing—still apply and will continue to be used with greater frequency.

Some new tools, or previously less-used platforms, are also being utilized. The sudden transition to working remotely has led to the widespread adoption of Microsoft Teams as a tool that allows our people to collaborate internally on projects. We are seeing clients also make use of new platforms and communication protocols in response to the COVID-19 disruption.

If there was ever a time for experimenting with new digital work tools, this is it. We are exploring several new platforms for virtual collaboration and brainstorming with both colleagues and clients. These include tools such as Mural, Miro, Conceptboard and others. A willingness to experiment and the patience to learn how to use new tools are crucial in this time of change.   

2) Proactive communication and troubleshooting

Most of our clients are also working from home during this period. Given all the uncertainty of today’s environment, clients have appreciated a proactive approach to communication. A quick phone call to check in and touch base (and foster some social interaction!) can go a long way. Transitioning to shorter, more frequent discussions also has been useful given the speed of our changing context. In some cases, for example, a standing bi-weekly meeting has transitioned into a shorter weekly call.

Anticipating what clients are concerned about and focusing our attention on that perspective is important. For a lot of office building projects, marketing and leasing are crucial. How can the projects our clients are working on now be best positioned for success following the pandemic? For interior spaces, how can we create user experiences that are thoughtful about public health and hygiene habits, such as touch-free experiences, sanitation and increased opportunities for hand washing? Helping clients think through these new criteria is part of our role as advisors. While no one has all the answers, we can help make sure we are asking the right questions.

3) Personal connections and camaraderie

Virtual communication tends to be easiest with people you already know and requires a bit more practice for newer relationships. Trying to focus on the basics of human-to-human communication can help. You can do this by assuming people have a positive intent, asking clarifying questions and trying to ensure all parties feel comfortable communicating in the medium of choice.

Lastly, remember that we are all going through this together, professionally and personally. I’ve found reaching out to clients to ask how they’re coping has been helpful. So, too, is sharing humor or personal details about our daily predicaments, such as why there are dinosaurs in the background of a video call (working out of my son’s room) or how the barking in the background is just the dog’s way of saying he too wants to join the discussion.

In short, these are not typical times and the typical and traditional modes of professional communication no longer apply. Yet by rethinking our approach, this time of social distancing may actually help us become better connected to our colleagues and our clients in a meaningful way.


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