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CEOs: In the “Geek Era”, Human Bonds are Essential


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In our screen-saturated world where new methods of communication are thriving, it is paramount to reaffirm the key role of human relations. This is just as true in the business world, and every CEO should be committed to preserving and developing social ties.

Screens, smartphones, tablets and computers have invaded our daily lives (as of September 1st 2015, the average French household had 6 such devices [1]). This has resulted in major societal changes: the culture of immediacy, the culture of interruption, the narrowing of perspectives, the superficial treatment of topics, etc. Paradoxically, our hyper-connected world is posing a serious threat to social bonds. Our society never created so much solitude. In 2014, one in eight French persons did not have any social relations [2]. Social contact has become a major challenge for our society.

The same holds for companies: in an increasingly fluctuating and uncertain world, it is paramount to reaffirm the key role of human bonds and connections between individuals. Digital communication tools (e-mails, enterprise social networks, etc.) can help strengthen bonds as much as they can deteriorate them, depending on how they are used. The 1990s and 2000s laid emphasis on organizational structure and operations. Today, it is necessary to underline the importance of human relations, flat organizations, and peer-to-peer communication that favor strong ties between all actors in a project, allowing them to go beyond the narrow set of duties commonly associated to a specific job title.

 

What do we mean by social bonding?

A company is similar to a living organism in which each part has a role, for example, giving strategic directions, producing a good or service, serving a client, or analyzing market signals. These different functions must be linked together by human relations, not just Excel tables.

Here are a few examples: in 2005, Nokia was the world leader in mobile phone technology. Their balance sheet seemed to indicate that the company had nothing to worry about. In reality, by 2005, it had one foot in the grave: it lacked the links between sales representatives, customers, and top management, which could have alerted them of the fact that the market no longer wanted a telephone but a new device providing internet services (music, video, games, web browsing, etc.). At IBM or Schneider – companies that used to believe firmly in human development during the 80s and 90s – operational processes have taken over, and many employees feel their work has lost a sense of purpose. There are interesting counter-examples: Xavier Fontanet, president of Essilor for 20 years, made a point of spending time with opticians as he knew that they, thanks to their proximity to clients and sales representatives, could bring the best ideas for his strategic thinking. At Cisco, John Chambers also strove to meet at least two clients a week. A company’s relationship with its external ecosystem (customers, partners or providers) is of fundamental importance.

The links between the various parts of this living organism that constitute a company are thus essential to its survival.

 

The human bond is a deciding factor at critical moments.

Social ties do more than just brighten everyone’s day. They play a particularly important role during crisis periods, for example when a company faces financial difficulty, or legal proceedings.

Sharing bad news can help the individuals on the blame list to take a step back. Sharing good news multiplies its positive effects. When facing failures or threats, transparency is a very powerful weapon: it defuses the anxieties that silence creates, it allows employees to take part in finding solutions, and it upholds a high level of trust, and consequently keeps teams motivated and committed to the business plan.

Social bonding has also a very significant part to play during strategic transformation periods. Strategic thinking, which is often an iterative process made of incremental progress, doubts, and obstacles, thrives from client feedback, from ideas brought forth by technical teams, from observations of broader industry tendencies, etc.

 

How do you develop social bonding in a company?

The social bond must be maintained every day. The presence of top executives in an open-plan office sends a positive image of proximity and favors direct conversations that transcend hierarchical relationships. Team lunches are also very favorable to exchanging views about the company and its strategy.

At Qosmos, a startup company that has grown to 100 associates today, the management team organizes several team-building trips a year to destinations such as the French Riviera, the Atlantic coast, or the French Alps. The trips include a presentation delivered by the CEO focusing on the strategic priorities for the coming months as well as a series of recreational activities that lead to more personal conversations and encourage a more relaxed form of communication.

Both formal and informal tones have their importance: team meetings, company meetings (gathering all members of a company), quarterly meetings for MBO (Management By Objectives), strategic reviews, product reviews, all of these formal exchanges provide an important framework but are not sufficient.

The abuse of e-mails in a company is very dangerous: loss of productivity due to mail flooding, depletion of information, aggravation of conflicts, feelings of isolation, and the deterioration of the workplace atmosphere. These problems are taken very seriously by HR directors who recommend verbal exchanges. For example, Intel and Deloitte banned e-mails on Fridays to force their employees to communicate more directly.

Informal communication is, however, also important: chitchatting over a cup of coffee, inquiring over the morale of an employee who is having a hard time, ringing a colleague in the United-states or in Asia without being required to do so… Informal communication is also useful for expressing gratitude or appreciation for work that has been done.

Internally, traditional communication tools may be used to maintain social links and promote more personal projects. For example, Qosmos organizes optional internal half-hour meetings called ‘Qosmos News’. They provide an opportunity to have discussions and exchange feedback of all kinds, from the R&D Vice-President’s participation in the 2015 Transquadra (a prestigious Transatlantic solo sailing yacht race), to explaining a client-specific project, to discussing recent technical innovations.

Strengthening the link between employees and their companies also means safe-guarding the balance between personal and professional lives. For instance, Qosmos offers its associates the possibility to adapt their working hours, to work part-time, to tele-commute, or to take a sabbatical.

In the age of virtual communication, a leader must keep at heart the constant need for reinforcing human relations within his company.

 

[1] Médiamétrie survey “Home Devices”, Q1 2015. The figures take into account TV, computers, mobile phones, game consoles, tablets and portable media players.
[2] «Agir contre la solitude» (”Acting against isolation”), a survey released by the Fondation de France in July of 2015.

 

 

By Thibaut Bechetoille, CEO, Qosmos – Article first published on July 8th 2016 in the French magazine Le Journal Du Net