Conversational Integrity and the return to campus

17 August 2021      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer

A return to campus life is coming, writes Richard Peachey of CMP. As with most sectors there will be more flexibility post-Covid-19 on remote working, looser expectations around nine to five routines. 

But there will also be the same anxieties and tensions. A recent survey among more than 1,000 professional workers in the UK by CV-Library suggested that 55% were experiencing symptoms of anxiety around the return to their workplace. This wasn’t the result of worries about the virus but what the end of working from home or at least more flexible forms of working would mean for their mental wellbeing. 73% didn’t want to lose the flexibility of WFH and all the benefits they’d experienced in terms of work/life balance and more time for family and friends. 44% felt they were more productive when they were not in the office. 33% were worried in particular about a return to office politics. Just a third flagged uncomfortable feelings around the risks from Covid-19.

Going back to campuses will be a relief for some staff. Being part of the campus community, the buzz of students, the social circles and events involved. But there is no simple return to normality. The pandemic period has broken up our sense of normal and led to fundamental questions about what’s essential or important about how we work, when and where - as well as the balance with home life and responsibilities.

So along with the inevitable tensions around health risks and the vulnerabilities of individuals, there is also going to be resistance from some at falling back into old routines. Or what now look like outdated duties and limitations to ways of working. This situation comes along with a context where students are questioning the value for money from their disrupted experience; when there’s constant change in terms of systems and processes. That means a climate of heightened potential for grievances and conflict.

This messy picture isn’t so complicated after all. For university HR what matters is that staff feel able to speak up and know they are going to be listened to. Not a reliance on formal processes for grievances but a mix of useful informal offerings and straightforward people skills. 

Informal offerings for early intervention and resolution are what make the difference. That means mediation services involving trained staff or external support; managers and HR professionals equipped with the awareness and skills to manage conflict in effective ways; and encouraging a workplace culture of ‘good’ conversations. Deeper and more long-lasting change comes from institutions where the right behaviours and skills have become commonplace. That means building a culture of ‘Conversational Integrity’ that leads to better handling of difficult conversations, allowing employees to feel able to be open, and most of all to create a sense of psychological safety in workplaces - people can be themselves, discuss problems early on without fear of recriminations or being ‘gagged’. Core skills for Conversational Integrity include ‘situational awareness’, the essential practice of ‘curiosity’, ‘reflective listening’, ‘empathy’, and ‘self awareness’ - so not just listening outwardly but inwardly, how your own ‘inner state’ is impacting on the flow of the conversation.

More attention is needed to the state of conversations and the systems in place to support them. The return to campuses is a chance to ‘build back better’ conversations among staff in general. Finding ways to better balance digital and face-to-face conversations. Making sure ‘difficult’ conversations aren’t avoided. The turn to digital conversations, video calls and messaging has meant more superficial conversations, lacking the face-to-face ingredients that encourage rapport, active listening and empathy - like body language and signals of mood. With quick, functional exchanges via digital platforms there are greater chances of miscommunication and misinterpretations. Nuance and subtlety can be lost. Small issues can turn into major grievances because of the simple absence of a conversation to clear the air.

Richard Peachey, Consultant, workplace relationships specialist CMP.

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