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10 July 2020


Written by
Cornelis Tanis


In the first week of March this year (feels like a century ago) I was facilitating an in-person workshop in the US on courageous conversations. One of the participants who is an HR Business Partner, raised a challenging situation she is facing. She wanted to practice having a difficult conversation with a Business VP about allowing his team to work from home more often. Her colleagues readily played the role of the hesitant VP.

And here we are in July with many of us forced to work from home.

The pandemic has accelerated the ways that we at Cultivating Leadership are engaging with clients in the virtual space. While delivering virtual programmes has been one of the ways we’ve engaged with clients for at least 5 years, we now find ourselves being stretched in doing most of our work virtually, rapidly co-creating these experiences with clients. I am very grateful to our clients who have a vision and a budget for continuing to grow people on the job, even – or especially – in these unusual times. I tell myself that this is what adaptation is all about. That I am experiencing myself what it means when we talk with clients about thriving in a VUCA world. So, we lean in.

Today, a few weeks before a summer break, I find myself and my family pretty exhausted, not thriving. The other day I summarized the situation as: “Er gaat niet veel mis, maar ik mis van alles”. This play on words in Dutch comes down to something like “not quite missing the mark, yet missing quite a lot”. I am aware that this comment breathes privilege. We are grateful to be healthy, our parents are ok, we still have income, and our children have great support from their schools.

Nevertheless, I would like to share a few observations about what it is that I’m missing and for which I haven’t yet found new ways to navigate. In a Zoom-room I feel I’m still scratching the surface of my flat screen to look for 3-D cues. For ways of being together in person that ‘in the past’ made a lot of difference to me in my interactions with colleagues and clients. And I fear now that I could have been wrong about those.

  • A friend who is a primary school teacher told me: “I have many conversations with parents about their children and often I need to help them make a decision. When I have them at my table, I simply know after observing them interact for 5 minutes which parent I am going to give my proposal too. In a virtual space I find this so hard.”
  • I observed a university applied science group Zoom team meeting where someone demonstrated the improved capabilities of a new digital tool. After collecting feedback, one of the team members noted that this idea had originated during lunch conversations at the long table they had in the office. Others chimed in quickly, realizing that in fact most of their innovative ideas originated from these informal lunch conversations and how now they were dearly missing those.
  • When I facilitate an in-person workshop, my habit is to connect and talk a lot with participants before the workshop starts and during breaks. I find it very useful and take some small pride in being able to weave the snippets of stories that I heard in to the topics that we are working on during the day. As facilitators we get cues from so many angles and senses. We intuitively make choices to either address something now or have a quick 1:1 convo with a participant during the next break. We know that there will be lunch and a dinner where we can re-visit or test some ideas about what is going on for people as they learn together. These ‘spaces in between’ are abundant and are often memorable. Not in the least because these are times when I can connect deeply with my colleague facilitators. In the virtual space I find this a lot harder. While clients tell me that the impact in the virtual space is still high, I do feel that I am short-changing them and somehow my identity feels at stake because of this.
  • A friend who works in youth care told me: “During team meetings, I could invite someone to speak up with eye contact, use my hand to slow down a talker at the other side of the table and use my voice to ask a question of the whole group. On-line I need to be more structured, sequential. It’s alright, but it is costing me much more energy.”

Reading these observations, you might feel an urge to say: “let’s lean in and see how we can facilitate that on-line!” Twitter, for example, announced that they will never return to offices. The new Twitter policy doesn’t surprise me. Such a move would be congruent with an un-nuanced 140-character medium (one I don’t particularly fancy as you can tell). Working in the people and organizational development field requires much more nuance that often emerges in the ‘spaces in between’. So, I wholeheartedly say yes to innovation and in fact, we have become rather skilled in orchestrating high-impact, intimate programmes, using every Zoom trick in the book. At the same time I feel double homesick. I am ‘sick’ of working from home all the time and I am nostalgic about these ‘spaces in between’ where we could use all of our faculties and the room itself, almost effortlessly.

I am sure we will continue to find more ways to adapt and I’m afraid we may not have a lot of choice, and that makes me gloomy. While a part of me is in denial, I also choose to have hope that there will be days when this too has passed. That we will be able to play again in space-time and FaceTime and will have kept the good things that emerged from this period. I am already cashing in on some of that today. Before the pandemic I would drive for 2 hours to have a 1.5-hour coaching session. This has disappeared with most of my coaching happening virtually. Some spaces in between I am happy to leave behind.

Wishing us in the Northern hemisphere who have the option a restorative summer break.

Gloomy, hopeful, and playful.


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