We seem to be back on thin ice again. While the easing of restrictions over the summer undoubtedly buoyed the spirits and unleashed afresh social activity, rumblings in political, health and economic circles suggest an uncertain time ahead.

The end of the furlough scheme is unfortunately coinciding with inflationary pressures like steepling energy prices, supply-chain bottlenecks, and alarming recruitment shortfalls. Also, presentation of the government’s COVID-related plans for tackling a rapidly approaching winter has been anything but clear, not in my view helped by the differences across the four nations. Again, it feels like a fingers crossed emoji is the email sign-off of choice.

The UK’s pandemic stats paint a vexing picture. Despite early success for the vaccine rollout and evidence of a sharp fall at the end of July, the average number of daily confirmed cases has been climbing since the end of September.

From personal experience, having managed to celebrate, pretty much as planned, our daughter’s wedding in September, my wife and I fell victim to the virus not a month later. You win some, you lose some. Roll on the end of our quarantine.

Woven into this rather scratchy tapestry are important decisions about the workplace. How to return, who, when, for what proportion of the week (or wait and see if Plan B is invoked)? A tricky situation, requiring flexibility, sensitivity, and active listening to every employee, mindful of individuals’ changing expectations.

To quote from a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) guide ‘COVID-19: returning to the workplace’: ‘Employers must plan and implement any return to the workplace in a way that cares for their people and safeguards their health and wellbeing.’

As a specialist in business relationships, I was an early advocate of what has become known as hybrid working. The tyranny of the office is over. A blend of physical presence at work and remote working from home (or a de-centralised location near home) is the way to go for most of us, reconciling professional and personal goals and obligations.

But, and it’s a big one, the seductive charms of WFH (where there is no legal imperative to the contrary) must be resisted when they overwhelm the instinct to make a meaningful re-appearance at the workplace. Why? Because of the important difference between the transactional and relational aspects of business relationships.

Thank heavens for Zoom and the like over the past 18 months. Innovation in video teleconferencing has helped keep the wheels turning and reduce the decay in key commercial liaisons that would otherwise have occurred. These tools will remain an essential support to 21st century living.

For the parties to business relationships to get the best from each other, though, prolonged separation is problematic. Zoom is a transactional not a relational medium. It can connect large audiences, facilitate discussion, enable decisions.

What it cannot replace is the personal development, sense of belonging and overall stimulation that result from gathering and mingling in the flesh. When we are together, we connect, we trust, we invest. Relational interaction is how we make change happen.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, therefore, push hard to get closer to colleagues and associates. Try these three steps:

  • Fix some one on one, face to face meetings, even if they turn out to be side to side, walk and talk sessions. Nothing promotes stronger bonds than well delivered 1:1s
  • Create imaginative, relaxed social time. For getting to know each other again (maybe for the first time), sharing vulnerabilities, nurturing a team ethos
  • Make the workplace magnetic. Forcing people back is counterproductive. It needs to be desirable, enriching, worth it (more than yoga classes in meeting rooms). And there must be critical mass. There’s no point having people make the commute only to spend the day on video calls. Apply the best minds to this

If Build Back Better is the mantra du jour, build back the relational into your business relationships.