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Professionalism in the Age of Zoom: How Our Social Separation Can Impact Business Relationships

I recently had a candidate completely ghost me. I was trying to reach out with an offer and I never heard back.

Prior to March 2020, this type of behavior was extremely rare. While we’ve all known individuals who show these traits in their personal lives, in these past few months we’ve seen ghosting and general flakiness much more in the professional world, too. 

What’s Causing This “Shift” in Professionalism?

Our separation from others seems to have some unintended social consequences.

1. It’s easier to ignore others when you only have a virtual relationship. 

With most of our relationships taking place virtually, we find it easier to delay follow-up and ignore responding to the emails we don’t want to deal with. Eventually, people procrastinate so long, the “right time” has passed. 

Since we also won’t see anyone at the office or work events, we’re not held accountable to making our responses a priority. 

2. It’s more difficult to see how your communication impacts others. 

In a virtual relationship, it’s easy to think of the people as virtual too. In reality, others are affected by our follow-up (or lack thereof).

How might your failure to respond impact someone else’s relationship with someone else? They may need to gather feedback, report to their boss, or talk to a client. They don’t want to lose credibility either. (Related: How to Tell a Recruiter You’re Not Interested in a Position)

However, we lose sight of this when we aren’t interacting in-person. 

3. We’re out of practice in managing conflict. 

Conflict is inevitable when you interact with people regularly. But since we’ve been at home, we’ve escaped the natural, daily conflicts we learned to navigate by being in the office. Because we’re not interacting in the same way, it can be harder for people to approach others. 

“With most of our relationships taking place virtually, we find it easier to delay follow-up and ignore responding to the emails we don’t want to deal with. Eventually, people procrastinate so long, the “right time” has passed.”

People who were conflict avoidant had built up the capacity to deliver hard news and have minor conflicts because of their in-person proximity. But now that we’re separate, they may not feel compelled to respond with a message that might create conflict. 

5 Strategies for Dealing With Conflict Avoidance

Bottom line: Most of these people are not ill-intentioned. They’re conflict avoidant. They didn’t want to say no or engage in the uncomfortable conversation. They wanted to opt-out. 

Now, we’re left to deal with the lack of response and fill in the gaps. Here’s what has helped me in these situations. 

1. Don’t Take It Personally

It’s easy to be offended when you’ve invested time into building rapport and creating a good relationship. You’ve spent hours talking and thought you had mutual respect for each other. When someone ghosts you, it feels bad at first. You might wonder, “What did I do to them? What could I have said differently?” 

When you take a step back and realize you didn’t do or say anything wrong, you may see that they needed to say something that wasn’t what you wanted to hear. Rather than have the disagreeable conversation, when everything else had been so agreeable, they avoided it. 

2. Give Them A Way Out

Make it clear that the relationship is more important than the isolated transaction. Make sure to say things like, “Whether you take this job or not…” or “This might not be the right job for you, but…” 

Set (and state) a goal that’s bigger than the short-term interaction. Think long term. (Related: How to Make A Strategic Career Move During An Economic Downturn)

3. Celebrate Being Cancelled On

If you get cancelled on… Hurray! Rather than be frustrated by a no-show, enjoy the time. You get an extra hour. Do something with it! Enjoy lunch away from your workstation or get some fresh air. 

4. Insist on Video Calls When Possible

Video chat allows you to better read body language. Much of communication is non-verbal. The more accurately we can gauge how the other person is responding, the more accurately we can interpret what they say. 

“When you take a step back and realize you didn’t do or say anything wrong, you may see that they needed to say something that wasn’t what you wanted to hear.”

When you can see them, you’ll better understand how they feel and connect more deeply, more quickly. They may also be more comfortable sharing concerns and asking questions when they can see you and engage visually. 

Plus, you’ll both be less distracted. 

5. Set Communication Expectations

With less experienced candidates, I always set expectations for our rules of engagement. I communicate how I want feedback and discuss timelines for responses. However, no matter someone’s level of professional experience, it never hurts to reiterate your expectations for communication. 

Explain, “Here’s what type of communication I need for us to best work together” rather than assume others will communicate in the ways you expect. 

Hopefully, workplace flakiness ends along with the pandemic, but until then, we can all learn ways to navigate it with professionalism. 

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