The pandemic has changed the way we work forever. Even with life “getting back to normal,” it’s clear things will never quite be the same. Some healthcare administrative staff members are back onsite full-time, others are blending onsite and remote work, while still others remain fully remote. In this new environment, it can be challenging to stay connected with stakeholders in a meaningful way. As a result, it’s more important than ever to be intentional about finding opportunities for stakeholder interactions — and make the most of them. Here are eight tips for building and strengthening stakeholder relationships in a virtual or hybrid environment.
1. Acknowledge the problem and ask for help
If you’re feeling disconnected and, as a result, less effective, the most important thing to understand is that you’re not alone in that experience. “A lot of people suffer in isolation and feel like they’re the weak link,” says Nancy Settle-Murphy, president of Guided Insights, a firm that has specialized in virtual communications for more than 20 years. In this case, reaching out to your manager or stakeholders is the most important thing you can do. “If you have a supportive team where there’s an environment of trust, let people know how you’re feeling and be as explicit as you can about what you need from them.”
2. Take advantage of video technology
In some organizations, remote work has actually resulted in video conferencing entirely replacing telephone calls. Everyone just jumps on a virtual meeting, even for quick check-ins that would have been a phone call in the past.
“We’re face to face and we can really see each other. We’re doing more of that and really honestly, the communication has improved drastically,” says Sasha Randolph, recruitment and retention manager for the Kansas Recruitment and Retention Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “We’ve actually been able to connect on a whole other level. We have posted more positions, have increased our knowledge about the organization, and have seen some unique views and new ideas.”
3. Be formal about informal time
Some of the most important work accomplished by meeting is actually done in the casual, informal time before and after the meeting itself — in the chitchat that builds relationships and may even bring out information not included in the formal agenda. But this aspect of meetings is often sacrificed in virtual meetings.
It’s important to build that informal time into the meeting anyway, says Alec Levenson, PhD, senior research scientist for the Center for Effective Organizations at the USC Marshall School of Business.
“Being formal about informal time feels very artificial, but that’s what you have to do,” Levenson says. “We need to make sure we save time just to shoot the breeze with each other. And if they say ‘I’m too busy,’ then you take whatever time they give you. Make sure you go through your agenda items in a shorter amount of time. If they only give you 45 minutes, then get through it in 35 minutes so you can still have 10 minutes at the end — whatever it takes.”
4. Schedule time to replace casual encounters
A lot of valuable information is shared in casual conversations in hallways and break rooms. “Those kinds of conversations are the ones that happen much more organically,” Levenson says. “If you recognize that they’re not happening, then you need to be more purposeful and ask yourself, ‘How can I find ways to meet other people?’”
Consider the people in your organization that you don’t have opportunities to interact with virtually during your normal daily activities, but whom you might have chatted with when everyone was working in the office. “You might have had that water cooler chat and said, ‘Hey, I haven’t heard about this. Can you give me some insight about X?’ That’s almost impossible unless people are onsite together,” Settle-Murphy says. “So, how do we replace that? We have to be exceedingly deliberate about planning our meetings and contacts.”
5. Focus on building relationships when you are in the office
If your schedule includes some time in the office, seize that time for building stakeholder relationships. “If you’re going to come in the office two days a week, try to reserve a couple of hours to just wander the hall and see people and reconnect,” Levenson advises.
However, he cautions not to spend your precious office time connecting with people that you already have a good relationship with. Instead, focus on those you need to establish a new relationship with or those who you’re struggling to work with effectively.
6. Solicit and respect communication preferences
If you’re having a hard time getting a stakeholder’s attention, the communication platform may be part of the problem. Video burnout is real, and sometimes a phone call lets both parties focus on the work while taking a break from being “on” for the camera.
“Bottom line, honor their choices and their preferences. If someone says, ‘I don’t want to do video. Can’t we just have a call?’ the answer is yes,” Settle-Murphy says. “Go with what they’re comfortable with and ask that in advance.”
If you have material you need to share during the meeting, send it out to the stakeholder in advance. “Say, ‘This is in your inbox. When we talk, I will go over the top three points. You don’t have to look at them in advance, but it’s up to you,’” she says.
7. Include asynchronous communication
Does the communication really need to be face to face — or even on a phone call? Email, messaging apps, and texts can be an effective way to stay connected with stakeholders. “It’s particularly important to have that asynchronous way, because you’re not going to tee up meeting times perfectly every time and we’re not going to get our work done if we’re in meetings all day,” says Settle-Murphy.
8. Create personal connections outside of technology
Find other ways to make contact, says Settle-Murphy, such as sending thank you cards or scheduling a lunch purely to catch up. “Send something of value that’s relevant,” she says, such as informative articles, webinar suggestions, or “just a card saying I was thinking of you.”
Building and fostering stakeholder relationships in this new and challenging virtual environment is possible, but it takes effort and effective planning. Following these tips can help you be more effective in strengthening your connections whether you’re part of the new hybrid workforce, back in the office, or fully remote.
Further reading on this topic: Figuring Out Social Capital Is Critical for the Future of Hybrid Work
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