Professional Intimacy. Another buzz word, or the latest tool in progressive leadership?
Over the years, there has been a greater understanding blooming in corporate spheres for the importance and impact of professional intimacy. When the corporate culture shifted from a more traditional practice of professionalism (where the division between personal and professional personas was distinct), we were starting to reap the benefits of developing our workplace relationships through professional intimacy; utilising concepts such as social capital, positive reinforcement and the nurturing mutual interests with the aspiration for more connected and symbiotic professional relationships.
But when our natural human desire for proximity and connection suddenly became dangerous with the advent of the pandemic, the methods in which we sought safety, fun and bonding at work (the very things that allow us as humans to thrive) were irrevocably altered.Suddenly, our ability to experience a sense of familiarity, trust and intimacy in the professional sphere was significantly limited.
And so, in the wake of the pandemic – a period of global disconnect, isolation and change unlike history as ever seen – perhaps it is prudent to begin a deeper exploration of the connections between successful professionalism and intimacy in the organisational context. Perhaps discovering how to enact greater care and connection in the professional field is to simultaneously discover a new age of employee satisfaction, productivity, and progressive leadership.
So what does professional intimacy in the workplace mean and how can we cultivate it?
Well, a survey conducted by The Conversation generated the sentiment that workers feel the most valued when their managers trust them. It showed a positive correlation between managerial trust in employee ability and employee satisfaction, productivity and overall loyalty to their workplace. When given words of encouragement, constructive criticism and the independence to get their tasks done, employees felt more inclined to produce their best work. Likewise management felt a greater sense of satisfaction with their staff, all through simply conducting better methods of communication and building trust. Naturally, this cultivation of professional intimacy fostered a greater sense of reciprocal trust within employer/employee relationships, with the added bonus of bringing both employees and employers into better alignment with company vision.
Amongst our wonderful staff here at JOST & Co, we conducted a similar experiment.
We sent out an internal survey with the intent of exploring the characteristics, values and methods held by our staff’s previous employers that were deemed to be the best.The results were illuminating. We were able to ascertain what our staff members had enjoyed most about their former employers, and what they, as employees, value most in their leaders and company culture.
The results were categorised into relevant sections based on the three main questions asked.
1. What type of personality/culture did this employer have that you liked?
The main response here was that staff appreciated a supportive environment, with emphasis placed on valuing empathy and humility in their leaders, as well as a positive energy (*hint hint, fun) in their company culture. In virtual environments, staff placed deep importance on feeling connected to their employers and colleagues, which was said to be achieved through genuine interest in wellbeing and ensuring staff still felt ‘part of the team’ despite a lack of face-to-face connection.
2. What was it about their approach to management that you thought worked well?
The overwhelming sentiment here was encouragement. Staff place a great deal of importance upon feeling respected and safe in their work environments and relationships.
“Giving people the space and the courage to try and to fail. Focusing on the people, not the roles or the jobs. Really thinking ahead about succession; where everyone in the team wanted to go and supporting that. Having clarity in purpose.”
Additionally, staff highly valued transparency in their employers, and enjoyed building trust and rapport, especially if this enabled greater alignment with company values, which then promoted an increased desire to work hard for the employer to ensure mutual success.
3. Was there anything special/different/fun/unusual that they did that you hadn’t experienced in a workplace before?
The results here showed again that staff had deep appreciation for being allowed the grace to make mistakes – or even better, fail – and not fear punishment. In an environment that felt safe, staff felt they could create more successful ideas, learn from their mistakes and produce their best work. Additionally, staff enjoyed the positive experience of connecting with their managers/bosses/employers when each party shared more of themselves personally, allowing for more genuine connection.
Here we can see that staff responded most positively to a management style that prioritised quality communication, encouragement, positive reinforcement, an understanding approach towards failure and mistakes, as well as an overall attitude of support and friendliness towards their employees.
In other words, the employees highly valued professional intimacy in each and every circumstance.
Further reinforcement of this concept can be seen in Boston Consulting Group Managing Director Deborah Lovitch’s article on maintaining social intimacy between colleagues during the pandemic. She regaled tales of how she and her colleagues shared scenes of their respective lockdown house-messes, of introducing each other to their pets in the breaks in Zoom meetings, and of mourning those mundane and incredibly normal moments that we share as employees; a knowing eye roll or a catch-up chat before a meeting. These seemingly tiny gestures were the very foundation that maintained vital human connection in a professional setting.
In the absence of that normalcy, Lovitch emphasised the importance of maintaining curiosity, of asking questions, of sharing struggles as well as triumphs, and of remaining undeniably human throughout the whole process. It is through this lens that we can truly grasp the impact of the pandemic (and of the shifting corporate culture in general) and how it laid bare the authenticity of our human vulnerabilities. In a newer, messier and more virtual space, there was an important shift in the methods of maintaining professional intimacy.
So what actionable steps can we take to ensure we’re cultivating the right level of professional intimacy?
It may look different for everyone, depending on your organisation:
- Weekly or daily ‘check ins’, e.g., acknowledging staff’s emotional wellbeing before a meeting or at the start of the work day
- Creating a staff communication channel (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc) that is purely for sharing fun, creative, joyful content that is not necessarily related to work
- Prioritising team bonding, e.g., monthly dinners
- Group participation in mindfulness activities, e.g., yoga breaks, Meditation Mondays
What is clear is that there is no right or wrong way to nurture professional intimacy. It is a concept that requires the consideration of parameters such as culture and location, as well as technological accessibility. It is nuanced and will look different for each organisation as we all navigate the rebalancing of our personal and professional spheres. But with the potential for boosted productivity, more symbiotic work relationships and greater alignment with company vision, what remains true is the extensive positive impact that professional intimacy can provide to the workplace.