Guest Column | March 4, 2021

How Best To Manage Relationships In A Digital-First Environment

By Ablorde Ashigbi, 4Degrees


Spanning education to enterprise to financial services (and many, many professions in between), the effects of the past year drove a transition to a digital-first environment. Many would argue this was coming and was merely accelerated by recent events. 

While digital channels are well-known for helping people connect in new and unique ways, it also has led to the creation of a different standard for communication and availability. 

Remote work and the general migration away from the nine-to-five office environment have resulted in a much more interrupted workday for many. Between Slack messages, Zoom calls, or helping your kids manage the school day, it is challenging to replicate the steady workflow of the office. This is amplified by shifting communication patterns created by the lack of physical or in-person engagement (combined with a plethora of new solutions to learn from behind a computer).

It is very difficult to mimic in-person interaction (in some senses, impossible where responsibilities including fund-raising and sales demonstrations require at least a measure of in-person contact), but that does not mean there are not new ways to manage, foster and nurture relationships in this digital world. 

At the very least, it is getting organizations to question what parts of the physical experience are critical to fiscal and operational success.

There will again be a place for these physical interactions - but, likely, many of these digital-first approaches are here to stay. As such, we will see a mix or hybrid of in-person and virtual infiltrate almost every aspect of our professional and personal lives.

Thanks to the rapid rise of remote work, the professional world has quickly learned how to make digital relationship building enjoyable and worthwhile. As a result, the set of tools this infrastructure required presents an opportunity to innovate.

Here are suggestions for how leaders and organizations can best manage relationships in this digitally prioritized world and keep close to home as we transition into a hybrid enterprise.

Build Strong Communication To Deliver Emotion 

Communication always has been fundamental to any successful organization. What digital environments have done, however, is highlight communication gaps - all the messages that are absorbed via osmosis about how an organization operates, that can no longer be easily transmitted.

The biggest gap presented during the remote work pivot was understanding how to turn the “illegible” or “non-verbal” into a legible, communicable, message for those not in the room. For example, in an office setting, understanding how decisions get made is straightforward. The setting makes it easier to communicate as you can see each other and read body language. You can take non-verbal cues of when to jump into a conversation, avoid delays across multiple microphones, draw on a whiteboard, etc. The list goes on. 

Many of these problems have been solved (and are actively being solved by) technology. I see this trend continuing with new solutions helping bridge these gaps in a hybrid world. 

I have had to adapt my leadership and communication style to meet this evolution – and that has meant being more deliberate in how I convey emotion – or, in layman’s terms – replace what I’ve lost through in-person interactions. That loss of emotional connection is something my organization and I are working hard on to resurrect in a digital enterprise where historical and personal information feels even harder to come by despite our “always on and always connected” workday. Video communication tools and other networking solutions have a place (and are used widely today) but we are already witnessing fatigue from these platforms. 

Am I delivering emotion intentionally? Is this a time for video vs. using a phone call? How am I using emojis in conversation? When are just the facts necessary?

With clear communication, companies experience better productivity and a more connected culture. 

Prioritize Your People

If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that prioritizing people is paramount; a core investment in both your company and culture. While it is clear how important it is to help individuals navigate this transition professionally, it also carries into the personal as well.

Whether these individuals in question are your employees, family members, business partners, friends, or prospective investors, they are all people first – and the most important investment you can make is in your people. In the short term, it is the right thing to do; and, in the long term, it is strengthening the people who drive and support your company and brand. 

By prioritizing your employees and giving them the freedom and ability to manage a household, care for their children and nurture relationships, companies will find they are rewarded with a fulfilled and productive workforce. More importantly, an accountable one.

Employees value being a part of an organization that trusts its people and encourages them to thrive personally and professionally. It is hard to imagine every industry in the world (and every individual) going back to a similar level of going into the office five days a week, with all employees working synchronously. Organizations that can offer flexible work schedules will be at a significant hiring and talent acquisition advantage.

While many see this as a dichotomy (giving people this freedom while also making everything about work, all the time), it is possible to align these values with your company’s overarching goals. Investing in employees creates a synergistic environment, one that prioritizes the company mission while supporting individual ambitions. 

With flexible environments, people can make progress in their lives via an environment that celebrates and supports their success. 

Contrary to past beliefs, this idea is a workplace accelerant rather than an inhibitor. 

Balance Synchronous From Asynchronous Delivery Channels

This balancing act is vital and is fed by the prior examples focused on people and communication. In fact, I wonder how many employees would argue that they are expected to be on call – or, at a minimum, responsive around the clock thanks to investments that put information at their fingertips rather than in the office. This burden is not sustainable. 

One way to eliminate this burden and better communicate both flexibility and accountability is by leveraging a blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication channels.

Video fatigue has entered the cultural vocabulary in a big way. We feel the burden of feeling always on - and much of that is from seeking to replicate the instant communication we have become accustomed to in an environment that doesn’t really support it. But there’s a real opportunity to take advantage of the unique benefits of remote work through smartly blending real-time and delayed communication.

For example, video does not always have to be used for real-time communication. By leveraging video capture solutions, employees can record their screens, present their topic, and walk the team through the content in a far richer way than just audio, while eliminating the video fatigue and creating flexibility. 

This also will help with both coordination and talent acquisition. Organizations will have the freedom and flexibility to potentially hire across time zones if the right fit appears. Individuals will have even more flexibility while having simpler channels to represent value and accountability.

We have recognized the growing pains of a digital-first environment and are just now seeing the opportunities (and the emerging solutions to take advantage of them). 

This past year has forced us to shift perspectives and not take anything for granted. In a world where we have lost so much, and so many - it has reignited our focus on relationships – how we spend our time and whom we spend it with. We must never forget that these are the personal and human connections that define what we do, and most importantly, who we are. 

In the future, the enterprise will continue to emphasize the importance of people, relationship networks, and trusted partners. We all must deliver value in our work while prioritizing our personal lives. We have been given an excellent opportunity – an opportunity to invest in relationships in new and meaningful ways - while still striving to reach our professional goals. 

This changing landscape also means there is an opportunity for new tools and infrastructure that support a hybrid workforce.

Cue an incredibly interesting, vibrant, and fulfilling new domain ripe for innovation. 

About The Author

Ablorde Ashigbi: Ablorde is the Co-Founder and CEO of 4Degrees, a Chicago-based technology company applying machine intelligence to help teams in relationship-driven industries manage their most important source of opportunity - their professional networks. Before 4Degrees, Ablorde has held various investor and consultancy positions at companies including Pritzker Group Venture Capital, Bain & Company, and G2 Crowd. When he's not doing that, you can usually find him lifting weights, reading books, or eating BBQ.