I was speaking with a new client the other day; meeting her for the first time over video from my perch at my desk—my desk in my kitchen. And no, that’s not a pandemic space-sharing move. Since Craig and I started 3COze almost five years ago, my desk has been in my kitchen. We live in a small house in downtown Toronto and space is at a premium. There’s no room for Craig or me to have offices, so we have spaces instead. Mine just happens to be a ten-foot stretch of the kitchen wall.
So, when I got on the call with this potential client, over my right shoulder she could see a few dirty dishes from a quick morning interlude of bread baking. Over my left shoulder was my ever-present bunch of bananas. Side note: If you and I ever do a call or you see me doing a webcast, look for them. Our family eats a ridiculous number of bananas, so if you see me after shopping day, there are north of twenty bananas, all with their stems wrapped tightly in plastic wrap to keep them yellow for longer. It’s become a running joke for clients and friends to tell me when I need to put bananas on the shopping list, or to remark that they’re looking a little brown and it’s time to make banana bread.
It got me thinking. I’m trying to convince this woman that I would be a good keynote speaker for their virtual leadership summit. I’m attempting to ooze credibility and to demonstrate that I can be trusted with their fifty top leaders. And while I did shower and opt for a sweater instead of a hoodie (i.e., changed from business casual to business formal on my pandemic fashion continuum), I didn’t put gunk in my hair or makeup on my face. I haven’t done either of those things since March 10th.
As far as I can tell, it didn’t hurt my chances of winning the work. Actually, I think it helped us create a stronger connection, faster. Afterall, they want someone to talk about leadership, and influence, and conflict and to tailor it to the current kooky context. I was just showing her that I’ve got kooky context covered!
I have to say, I like it. I really like it.
To be fair, this scenario probably plays to my strengths. I’ve always been the type to be transparent and candid about my life. I help teams work through really raw and intimate conflicts, so modeling that it’s ok not to be at your best is part of my gig. This isn’t all that strange for me.
But it sure is for many people! Is it for you?
Seeing People as Whole Humans
I’m facilitating a corporate strategy project for a Fortune 500 high tech company at the moment. The entire process, dozens of meetings are happening over Skype. The participants are mostly men in their forties and fifties—engineers, MBAs. They all have top tier status on the airlines, and I suspect many of these people sleep in hotels as much as in their own beds. They go hard.
When the project started, about half of the team left their webcams off during meetings. But a month in, the positive peer pressure is kicking in and they’re turning on the cameras. It’s amazing. I’m coming to know them as whole humans. I bet they’re even getting to know one another better, even after working together for years. We can see the art they have on the walls (one team member has four beautiful guitars on the wall and I’m still waiting for an impromptu concert). We can see and hear kids in the background. From their volume level, we can guess how old the kids are and get a sense of what that means for the person’s efforts to be productive and to parent at the same time. I feel for them. (Several times during this self-isolation I have said a silent thank you to the universe that my kids are 18 and 14 and for the most part, self-sufficient and quiet.)
Of course, the other scenario happens too. Someone turns on the webcam and you see that they’re alone, six weeks in to having absolutely no human contact. No one to touch or hug or hold. You suddenly understand why they are churning out so much work—it’s a distraction from the silence for them. I ache for them too.
And that’s kinda’ the point. I am feeling for people as whole humans. It’s so much easier to empathize with people at the moment. Ironically, while the images of people are now two-dimensional, our understanding of each other is more three dimensional.
It’s completely normal to start off a conversation with “how’s it going today?” And now everyone knows that you mean it. Where are you at? How heavy is the burden today? Which spot are you at on the roller coaster—are you having a pretty good day ticking slowly, slowly higher…or was that yesterday and today the uphill has ended and you’re plummeting over the other side?
Yep, I get it. There are bad days. Really bad days.
In a recent Zoom call with a bunch of colleagues, I could see, even in the tiny Brady Bunch box, that one of my friends didn’t have her normal 100-Watt smile on. I used the chat function to send her a private message and learned that her boyfriend had broken up with her. We arranged a private call and it felt so good to just be there, to just say, “that sucks!” I’ve never spoken with her about her personal life before, but now it just seems so obvious that when I’m having a good day, I have an obligation to care for my colleagues who aren’t. We ended the call by arranging to have another discussion about a bunch of work issues. Because we can help each other there too. Our connection is strengthened.
What are you learning about your colleagues during this crisis? How has seeing into their homes changed how you think about them? How has being seen in your sanctum affected others’ perceptions of you, or what you’re projecting? What do you like about it? What do you find difficult? Let me know. I’m so glad you and I have this chance to get to know one another better, too.