In the UK, we are emerging from the late May bank holiday. How did we mark it? Did we even notice? For the front line, there was precious little pause for relaxation, gardening, and DIY. For the furloughed and the working from home, yet more of the same, selecting from an embedded menu du jour – online gym class, energetic internet browsing, Zooms of all shapes and sizes, reading to distraction, baking for Britain, social media workout, writing lists for ‘when it’s over’, balancing a remote office with intensive childcare and pet welfare, more exercise or food shopping and then, phew, it’s drinks o’clock and guilt-free recreational screen time.

Even the typically awful weather abandoned us. Unlike the typically awful politicians and their special, oh so special, advisers. I guess that would be too much to expect, even in a global crisis.

Significantly, though, week 10 of lockdown has begun. As a wild stab in the dark, I would say that we have all had enough. Tellingly, email sign offs have now begun to wish for the recipients’ sanity as much as their physical health.

Fortunately, so far, my family and friends have avoided the most severe consequences of COVID-19. More widely too, there are signs that, in this country at least, the worst may indeed be behind us. But the frustration of being in a kind of limbo, unable to reclaim our lives (in whatever form they will take) is now imposing an increasingly heavy burden.

Of course, there are many uncertainties ahead. Intelligent tactics will outscore longer-term strategy for a while yet. However, we do need to venture beyond the confines of a well-rehearsed narrative. We are very clear that coronavirus presents an unprecedented and life-changing challenge, that this period has not been our government’s finest hour, that we are blessed with the NHS and a cohort of low-paid workers who have kept the country going, that a reckoning is coming and it will answer to the name ‘new normal’.

To this point, a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review caught my eye a few days ago. Written by executive coach and organisational psychologist Doctor Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, the piece (‘If you feel like you’re regressing, you’re not alone’) highlights the importance of recognising that we are now moving from the purposeful, urgent, unifying emergency stage of managing the pandemic to the more “spluttering” regression stage.

While energy and performance can improve during the emergency phase, in regression people become tired, lose focus, forget the basics. Referencing developmental psychology, these are ways in which the mind defends itself from confusion and anxiety, in Wedell-Wedellsborg’s words, “by retreating to an emotional comfort zone”. Importantly, too, “from combat experience in particular, we know that regression is the most dangerous phase for teams”, threatening levels of cohesion and cooperation.

On an optimistic note, regression is regarded by experts as unavoidable in crises and is followed, in time, by the third and final recovery phase. In a way, we are making progress.

It is in this spirit that I address my existing and prospective clients. The last few weeks have not been the most appropriate for evaluating, fine-tuning, and upgrading business relationships. The COVID-19 emergency exposed more pressing needs, namely responding to immediate threats, protecting staff, maintaining some degree of continuity.

As we transition, however, we must identify the pressure points created by this toughest part of the crisis. Specifically, on the road to recovery, after the long weekend, it is time to address the risks to the integrity and effectiveness of business relationships posed by a period of regression.

The responsibility for this initiative would typically lie with an agency (or equivalent service provider) but if clients want the best from their external partners, then the relationship appraisal and implementation of outcomes need to be a shared endeavour. Enlightened clients will acknowledge this instinctively.

In this regard, here are five suggested areas of focus, to help boost the relational immune system:

  1. Intensifying connectedness. There will have been regular overall contact during the pandemic. But 1:1 communication may have been overlooked in the mix. Create time to gain a deeper understanding of what key contacts are thinking and feeling, and to share your own views. Key individuals may have drifted apart, and everything seems to be up for grabs
  2. Being kind. At both conscious and unconscious levels, everyone is stressed, plagued by an uncertain future. Balls will be dropped, objectives misinterpreted, deadlines missed. Cut your business associates some slack. Spend time in each other’s shoes. Make a point of overtly and empathetically managing expectations. If in doubt, be kind
  3. Prioritising proactivity. Do not let the rhythm of the work (which may be haphazard right now) dictate the rhythm of the relationship. For clients, take some time to plan, aim beyond business as usual. For agencies, remember it is the ‘pro’ (e.g. professional, proportionate, profitable) that counts, not the ‘activity’ per se
  4. Selflessly collaborating. Most businesses are hurting and, as a result, will tend to be inwardly focused. Navigating the regression phase, however, relies on a broad relationship footprint and ‘we’re in this together’ behaviour. This will help re-apply glue that may have begun to fail. Ambition beyond your own business will be appreciated for all time
  5. Engaging a third-party expert. With everything that is going on, investing in objective expertise will elevate and speed up the process of reviewing and rebooting those relationships upon which recovery will depend. Face-to-face methodology may not be possible but do not, at this stage, settle for online questionnaires only.

Fully functioning business relationships are fundamental, economically, to a successful emergence from this worldwide catastrophe. Even the most resilient alliances will never have faced the current challenges. As we wrestle with the regression phase of the pandemic, your key commercial relationships could be at risk and you may not, in these distanced times, be hearing the discordant notes.

I can help.