Peter Bigelow

Working unconventional hours in remote locations disrupts business more than material shortages.

As we enter the third year of our pandemic-altered world, more chains are strained than just supplies. With people working remotely during odd hours, changing careers, or stepping out of the workforce altogether to care for loved ones, the basic chain becoming strained is communication.

Communication has been transitioning over the past couple decades. Time, culture and technology have dramatically transformed. Long gone are the storied two-martini business lunches where colleagues, customers and suppliers met, broke bread and discussed one-on-one issues that needed ironing out. Over the past decades, face time (not FaceTime) with any business client has become extremely difficult to arrange. Today with Covid, meeting face to face is all but impossible for many. Long-changing trends compounded by recent events have had a negative impact on the ability to communicate effectively, which in turn has strained the quality of relationships in too many cases.

For years, a typical customer service or salesperson would spend so much time on the phone with clients, they were jokingly referred to as having “cauliflower ear.” The ongoing constant chatter between people – most business, but some social – helped build strong relationships. How times have changed. The phone-savvy businessperson and bonding over long lunches are no more. Over the past two decades, email has become the communication vehicle of choice. And the pandemic scattered employees, customers, suppliers – everyone – to remote offices, usually in their homes, hopefully with a quiet room from which to log on to Zoom, GoToMeeting and WebEx.

But with all these advancements in communication methodology, communication itself is collapsing. People working unconventional hours in remote locations don’t communicate as often, nor to as many people, as they did when reporting to work in a shared workspace: the office. Colleagues aren’t together. New employees have in some cases worked for a year or more without seeing their peers. What impact does strained communication have on building or maintaining relationships? Plenty! In our contemporary, highly digital, pandemic-impacted world, the word “relationship” doesn’t mean what it used to, in part because we are not communicating like we used to.

As communication becomes less frequent and consistent, so do the understanding and commitment between person and person, company and company. All business is basically an interpersonal relationship. As people drift apart, or are no longer able to bond in the first place, mutual understanding, commitment and trust all too often fall by the wayside. This is less of a problem when all is well, but during a multiyear pandemic that has globally impacted all aspects of business and life, it safe to assume many, if not most, activities we are used to are not going well.

Problems crop up, and that’s when the value of proactive communication – true relationships – is fully realized – or sorely missed. Especially in our current world, when problems crop up, by not having consistent, proactive, clear communication with employees, suppliers and customers, relationships among those parties become strained. When strains begin, the result becomes a de facto confirmation there is no relationship. When relationships become too strained, shortsighted misunderstanding leads to decisions to cut bait with the supplier, customer or employee and move on. In almost all cases, that is exactly what you should not want to happen. Cutting bait and replacing relationships with new, untried ones because no one took the effort to effectively communicate is a proven recipe for failure.

Everyone has customers or suppliers with problems – some self-inflicted, some accidental. In every case, what is needed to quickly and effectively resolve those problems is the ability to rely on crisp, effective communication with a reliable and understanding supplier, customer or employee relationship. Relationships demand enduring, proactive communication that flows both ways. Communication is the catalyst that enables relationships to develop and flourish, and lack of communication can begin the downward spiral that ends relationships.

This is why it is essential for management to be acutely aware of how communications are taking place in all areas of the business, especially now when so much of the workforce has been displaced to work remotely, or with new employees joining the organization who may not have been appropriately onboarded with the expectations of how and how frequent their communication efforts should occur.

Relationship means mutual respect, taking the good with the bad and rewarding a job well done, while also, in a nonpunitive way, communicating when pricing or service needs to be addressed. If we do not reground ourselves on communicating with our customers, suppliers, employees and employers during a perpetual pandemic when they are most in need of support, ultimately the relationships built over many years will founder.

In a world where escalating levels of communication technology are available, and in a jolted world where demands on the supply chain to remain competitive are under severe constraints, isn’t it now, more than ever, that we need to really understand what our customers, suppliers and employees need? If so, then we need to make sure we are committed to communicating in all ways possible, clearly, concisely and consistently, so relationships do not become further strained, and we all achieve mutual success.

Relationships have enabled our industry to grow, prosper and survive. Face-to-face communication, phone calls, emails and virtual meetings are essential now more than ever to propel our individual businesses and the entire industry to even greater success in the future.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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