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How to Build Strong Business Relationships — Remotely

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Although many managers have adapted to virtual meetings to replace face-to-face ones as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, developing new business relationships online presents a particular set of challenges. Because successful relationships are built on trust, it’s critical to make an effort to work around virtual interactions’ shortcomings.

As described in our book, Searching for Trust in the Global Economy, just prior to the pandemic, we interviewed 82 managers from four regions of the world about how they decide to trust new business partners. Their answers varied by region and culture. For example, we found that managers in both Latin America and the Middle East/South Asia wanted to spend time getting to know potential new business partners in person in order to establish trust. In Latin America, managers were using that time to assess potential business partners’ shared values, whereas in the Middle East/South Asia, managers were focused on assessing respect for different values.

Then in November and December 2020, we re-interviewed 21 of those managers and asked them how the pandemic was affecting their ability to develop new business relationships. We found that their cultural differences were still active. For example, trust did not change during the pandemic. It was still low in Latin America and the Middle East/South Asia relative to East Asia and the West. However, managers’ common experience with having to meet virtually had generated a consensus: It is almost impossible to build the kind of trusting relationships that were sustaining their businesses through the pandemic when only able to meet virtually. They explained that virtual meetings are transactional but deciding to trust new business partners requires deeper relationship building.

Here, we discuss the specific challenges managers have faced in building business relationships virtually. Then, we offer four pieces of expert advice for how to overcome those challenges.

The Challenge

Our pre-pandemic interviews identified four criteria that managers used to make trust decisions: openness, competence, respect, and rapport (i.e., similar values). Our interviews during the pandemic underlined how difficult it is to search for information to judge potential partners against these criteria when social interaction is limited to scripted, time-limited, online interaction.

For example, one manager from Japan explained:* “It is quite difficult for us to evaluate degree of competency before [meeting with them].” Another manager from Hong Kong added, “I think it is very difficult to convince people to sign a billion-dollar deal, let’s say in Cambodia, and not to actually have seen the land or seen the project.”

Participants also lamented that online interaction limited their ability to see and hear how potential business partners interacted with each other. A manager from Thailand explained that it was challenging to understand the decision-making process in a potential partner’s company when meeting virtually. Her company ultimately held off making any final decisions until there was a break in the pandemic and they could meet in person. She told us, “Once we did the ‘look and see,’ we learned that all their decisions were made by one man. Well, it ended up that we did not work together.”

Advice from Expert Trust Builders

Two years into the pandemic, everyone has learned a lot about what they can and cannot do online. The managers we interviewed amassed significant experience and wisdom as it relates to building trust with new business partners. Here are four lessons drawn from their experiences.

1. Don’t skip the personal things.

Although dedicating time in virtual settings to getting to know others is less than ideal, it’s still important for building trust in the context of building new relationships. Here’s why it’s important to be intentional about devoting time to more personal conversations:

Because in the virtual space you have less opportunity to get to know the other person. The time is very limited. You don’t start chatting about your family or how you grew up. I perceive that it is much more difficult to talk about personal things in a virtual environment than going for lunch with someone where the barriers go up or come down after some 30 minutes, one hour of being together. — manager from Bolivia

It is the things which you don’t learn because everything is on the agenda. If you do an online meeting, you do not devote sufficient time to offline discussion, which gives you clues. — manager from Germany

We were all listening and watching the video and all that but there’s still a preference for face-to-face. [In in-person meetings] you’ve got all the other side conversations that will happen after the meetings and stuff. [Those side conversations] are currently happening over WhatsApp or iMessage and on phone calls. But it’s just the [quick] catching up in the taxi or something like that. It’s those in-person moments that you build trust with the partner. — manager from Singapore

2. Use your networks.

People you trust in your existing networks can introduce you to or help you evaluate potential partners. They can act like a broker for you. Make it clear what common interests you might have with the potential partner and what questions you have about them. Here’s what a few participants had to say about networking:

There’s no formula for this. You just have to seek out the people in your network who can be the most helpful to you and who are willing to be helpful. And I’ve identified three or four of those people. I’ll approach them and say, “I need to meet with a certain person. Can you help make that introduction for me?” — manager from the U.S.

A current German customer introduced us to its Austrian subsidiary. And we had a good season with the Austrians. But then, there was a corporate realignment and I thought we might lose all of this company’s business. Instead, new management at the top, whom we had not worked with before, reached out to say they want to continue with us next year. — manager from Italy

The importance of the references [skyrocketed], because it’s not easy to make connections with someone you don’t know. People more and more ask for references. Because right now, we cannot do anonymous contacts with people. You have emailing and everything, but that’s not enough. — manager from Turkey

One Japanese manager explained that he identified potential new business in Taiwan, but with the pandemic, he couldn’t do a site visit. Instead, he turned to another Japanese company he trusted and knew had people in Taiwan who could visit the site and meet the people. He told us, “Now, we generally ask the trusted third-party company.”

3. Consider a trial with a new partner.

If someone is reaching out to you about new business, start with a smaller investment than you would have made if you had been able to meet with them in person. Similarly, if you’re reaching out about new business, understand that a potential partner’s preference for smaller deals initially may lead to bigger deals eventually. A manager from Saudi Arabia told us:

There was this transaction that we closed last week. It was the first time that we dealt with this partner, but we really liked the opportunity and we liked the markets and our due diligence was just positive across the board. We were willing to deploy bigger funds into this particular investment opportunity. However, because of our inability to meet the team face to face and see the company by our own eyes, we decided to stage our investment. We said we would like to invest a certain amount now and have the option to invest additional amounts in the future, once a face-to-face meeting happens.

4. Share expertise with trusted partners.

You may be able to help them streamline their processes — generating savings — or provide better service to their customers — developing new business for them and for you.

One manager from Nicaragua explained:

We’re building some online tools to help them sell their products. It helps sell our product, but also helps them sell all the products that they carry. That helped us expand our business with them because they see that we’re out to help them. That it’s more than just a business; it’s more like trying to help each other survive in this new environment.

Another manager from Finland told us that his company’s equipment had the capacity to transmit digital information on performance. Customers who had not opted for this service in their original contracts were asking how to how to turn it on and get the most out of it during the pandemic. The result was new business for his company, and new ways of marketing services that his company could provide.

The Future of Searching for Trust

There was agreement among participants that learning to work online during the pandemic would bring lasting change but by no means total abandonment of meeting in person when deciding to trust a potential new partner. As one manager from Italy put it:

We’ll maybe [do more] online after Covid-19, but I don’t think it’ll be just an online thing, because we’re human. Everybody wants to go back to what we used to do, but still there are some meetings that both parties understand we can have online.

And as one manager from the U.S. told us:

I think it’s going to go back some of the way towards the way it was with in-person meetings, but I don’t think it’ll ever get there again. The pandemic is going to stretch on far too long. And you’re going to develop new habits and new strategies and new communication tools that you’re going to get used to and comfortable enough with. And in lots of cases, you’re going to find that it’s good enough. It’s not as important for me to be in person in some of those cases where I would have in the past. It’s not as good as being in person, but it provides me an opportunity to better use my time and not have to make every single trip that I made in the past.

. . .

As the pandemic has continued to interfere with in-person business development, managers have become more resigned to online interaction, and even see some benefits to it. Nevertheless, what coping with Covid-19 has taught us is that when it comes to relationship building for new business relationships, it’s important to use business relationships intentionally. Resist the urge to skip taking the time to have a personal conversation when online, use your networks to make contacts and vet potential partners, consider a limited trial before taking a big risk or saying no to a deal altogether, and find creative ways to help trusted partners streamline and develop their businesses.

* Editor’s note: Quotes from participants have been edited lightly for clarity.

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Hiring a Remote Worker? It Takes More Than an Internet Connection

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Federal data continues to show near-record numbers of job openings across the country. As of April 2022, 33.4% of business owners were still having trouble hiring paid employees, according to the most recent Small Business Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

If your business has an open seat for a work-from-home job — or one that could be — a remote worker may help fill it. But before that can happen, you’ll need to handle more than just basic barriers, like equipment or cybersecurity. Here’s what you need to know to hire a remote employee.

1. Figure out the logistics

If you hire an employee in a new state from wherever your small business currently operates, you’ll be subject to that state’s employment laws and payroll taxes. You’ll also need workers’ compensation insurance in each state where you have employees.

The more far-flung your team gets, the more likely you may need to hire a human resources staffer, consultant or vendor — eating into your budget for new roles.

“If you want to keep things simple, stay within your state,” says Megan Dilley, communications director at Distribute, a consulting firm that specializes in remote work.

You can also turn to a freelancer-for-hire service like Fiverr or Upwork to simplify the hiring process.

Tessa Gomes, a Hawaii-based wedding planner, hired a team of five contractors through Upwork earlier this year.

“It just makes so much more sense than me trying to do it individually,” Gomes says. “It’s like [my] pool of human resources just grew tenfold.”

2. Define your company and the role

When writing your job description, make sure it includes details about your remote-work environment.

“The definitions [of ‘remote’] are all pretty fuzzy,” Dilley says. “So as much as you can, be very clear and transparent from the get-go.”

For example, if you expect employees to clock in at 9 a.m. Eastern time each day, to come to the office twice a week or to travel for a quarterly meeting, say so on the job listing.

Polish up your company website and social media profiles as well. Consider adding some information about your employees and your work environment.

Each company should make sure its online presence explains “who they are, their brand, what their culture is like, how they treat their people, DEI,” says Victoria Neal, an HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

You can list job postings on LinkedIn and other job board websites, but Neal says to try sharing job postings through social media or email among people who already follow your work.

“A lot of employers are really utilizing their current user bases” to find new hires, she says.

3. Redesign your interview process

Because interviewers may no longer see candidates in person, you’ll need to educate them about new things.

“Virtual recruiting and virtual interviewing can eliminate some biases,” says Allan Platt, CEO of business consulting firm Clareo. But he adds that they can introduce a whole new set of assumptions, for instance around candidates’ internet connection and home office setup.

To help with this, Platt says his company’s interviews are highly structured and candidates are evaluated on consistent matrices.

“The way that we structure and organize our interviews when we’re doing remote interviews is really important,” Platt says. “Candidates are evaluating us as much as we’re evaluating them. They’re looking for every clue they can get.”

You may also want to tweak your interview structure. For instance, remote workers need to be excellent communicators who can meet deadlines. Asking behavioral interview questions and assigning sample work can help you find candidates who demonstrate those skills.

4. Prepare for day one

Before your new hire joins the team, make sure your workplace operates well asynchronously. Online tools for remote work like Slack can help employees help each other, so a new hire’s manager doesn’t have to field every question — especially if their working hours don’t line up.

On day one, you can help your new employees feel welcome and fully prepared by planning an onboarding program. If you don’t already have documentation for common processes, try to create it before your new hire starts.

Schedule frequent meetings with your new employee at the beginning. As those meetings taper off, Dilley encourages over-communication as the norm.

Spend some time thinking about your own mindset, too. If you’re used to having constant contact with a new employee — especially during their first few weeks — prepare to give up some control.

With remote work, “trust is assumed and not earned,” Dilley says, “which is a bit of a difference in what people used to talk about.”

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To Make Better Hires, Learn What Predicts Success

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Hiring the best talent remains a persistent struggle for many companies. That’s because they are doing it wrong — often looking at the labor pool for carbon copies of people who are already successful in their roles. But that is being too demanding, particularly during a tight labor market. Instead, employers should borrow an approach from baseball, in which top teams track the performance of new hires and then search for the one or two skills or experiences that predicted their future success. For digital journalists, for instance, it might be the social engagement with published articles. To do this, companies must better connect hiring with performance management.

The current talent struggles of U.S. companies are hardly a new trend. A PwC survey dating 15 years back cited that 93% of CEOs recognized the need to change their strategy for attracting and retaining talent. If organizations have been trying to improve their hiring outcomes for so long, then why are so many still struggling? The short answer is that companies often spend too little time improving how they define and track performance.

A Lasting Problem

Recently, a number of executives have asked us if they still need to worry about recruiting as much given the signs of the economy softening. It’s true that economists expect the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates in an attempt to curb inflation, which is expected to increase unemployment. However, as Covid-19 has taught us, not every downturn is the same, and there are strong indications that hiring will continue to be a large obstacle for many companies.

In 2017 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a press release, stating that the number of unfilled jobs had reached 6.2 million, a historical high. That record was then surpassed in 2018 and then again in 2019 when the number of unfilled jobs reached 7.5 million. That number is now at 10.7 million, 43% higher than the prior record. As a result, there are currently two job openings for every person who is unemployed.

It seems unlikely that such a vast imbalance in the labor market will be resolved by even a recession. This is especially true for certain pockets of the economy that have a backlog of open roles due to Covid-19, and also for parts of the labor force, such as college graduates and other highly skilled professions, that have historically experienced relatively low unemployment even during economic downturns.

Companies have no choice — they must learn to hire better. So, how?

Emulate Moneyball, Not Frankenstein

In a knowledge-based economy individuals can contribute to organizations in an increasing number of ways. Envision a tech company with three successful product managers; Kate, John, and Aditi. Kate’s key to success is her data-driven approach to understanding customer needs, while John’s strength is an intuitive approach to product design and Aditi’s is her ability to empower her teams. As long as all three are successful, their employer is happy and gives them the freedom to do their work as they please.

The problem arises when their employer wants to hire a fourth product manager. Recognizing that all three product managers bring valuable skills to the organization, the tech firm writes the Kate+John+Aditi job description. This results in a Frankenstein talent strategy, focused on candidates who check the box on all dimensions as opposed to those with one clear superpower.

Compare this to the Moneyball approach to recruiting. While baseball players could contribute to the team in a number of ways, Billy Beane questioned the age-old quest for players who contributed to all of them. Instead Beane sought a portfolio of players, each making unique contributions. In other words, he reduced the number of criteria he expected his recruits to excel at. He did this by giving a lot of thought to what constituted success in each role. Note that he did not go with the broad definition of success, such as “helping us win the game in a variety of ways,” but instead focused on how each player could contribute to the team in a narrower dimension, such as how good their on-base percentage was. He then applied a razor-sharp focus to finding players who were net-positive contributors by outperforming on one or two criteria, even if it meant lacking in other dimensions.

A Case Study from Graduate School Admissions

We recently collaborated with a large U.S. university to reengineer its MBA admissions process. There was a long-standing belief in this school that the best predictor of a “good student” was the quantitative component of the GMAT. It’s a business school, after all, with rigorous requirements in courses like statistics, economics, and finance. Indeed, some faculty believed everything in the admissions process but quant GMAT was a waste of time. But we followed Billy Beane’s example and, instead of relying on this conventional wisdom, turned to historical data.

The first challenge was to articulate how the school defined performance. For example, should we define good performance as a student with stellar academic achievement or a good career outcome? Should we use starting salary as a proxy for a good career outcome or try to collect their compensation after a few years? How about students that go into meaningful jobs in sectors that don’t pay as well? Discussing these questions made us realize that desirable performance is multi-dimensional, with some dimensions easier to measure than others. We ended up using multiple proxies for even seemingly simple dimensions like academic performance.

In the end our team’s analysis found that quantitative GMAT scores are indeed a reliable predictor of applicants’ academic performance, but it also showed that verbal GMAT scores are as good if not better! Putting more weight on verbal tests scores was a simple shift in the admissions process, but one that lead to admitting a somewhat different student body. And doing things differently provides a competitive advantage relative to schools blindly following conventional wisdom.

How to Get There

Some business leaders we’ve spoken to recognize the need for a more analytical approach to hiring but are intimidated by how to get there. Defining and tracking performance doesn’t need to be a complicated, multi-year project where you start producing troves of new performance data. You often have the data you need; it just requires some hard thinking around how to utilize it.

Start by defining the outcomes you want to see for your team or organization. Then work creatively to measure those results and how to attribute those outcomes to the work of various individuals. The initial reaction from many executives, particularly in white collar industries, is that attributing such results to any single individual will be nearly impossible in their profession. However, more often than not we’ve been able to find ways to do this. A digital news site we worked with, for example, argued that a good news piece could come in many shapes and forms and therefore only relied on the instincts of their senior team to identify and try to recruit up-and-coming talent. We collaboratively came up with a few hypotheses on how to better identify future stars, and after testing these were able to show that the number of social media comments on previously published articles was a strong predictor of future success.

Where output data on desirable organizational results is truly not possible to define, input data on employee activities can be useful. A chair manufacturer we worked with was giving up revenues as it could not hire enough people to fulfill their orders. They also struggled with high employee attrition and high absence rates. Using their internal data, we were able to show that female workers — a heavily underrepresented group in the factory — had the least absences and were the most loyal workers. This helped them realize the root of their problem was that their recruitment process overlooked women and other qualified candidates, while favoring less productive men.

Yes, implementing the steps above will require your organization to set aside time to tackle complex topics that don’t have obvious answers. For example, should you define financial success for your company as revenue growth, margin growth or an increase in your share price? But in our experience these are conversations you should be having anyway. Because it’s work, not enough organizations do it. As in Moneyball, if you want significantly different results, you have to apply a significantly different approach to looking for talent. This seems obvious but it is in fact rare. To find better talent, begin at the end.

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Designing Hospitals that Promote Staff Wellbeing

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Even before Covid-19, rates of behavioral health illness were on the rise. In the third year of the pandemic, mental health has accelerated into a crisis, with health care workers in particular facing high levels of stress and burnout. Although mask mandates have been lifted and restrictions have been eased in many areas, caregivers are still in the throes of treating infected patients, while also coping with the fallout of the past two years. This convergence of factors has led to an uptick in mental health issues among health care workers, many of whom report experiencing record-high rates of anxiety and depression compared to the general population.

Previously, designing clinical spaces for well-being was focused primarily on the patient. Now, taking care of patients is table stakes; caring for the people who serve them is crucial to creating and maintaining a high-performing hospital system.

Designing buildings for the well-being of health care staff is not just necessary to curb the mental health crisis among the profession. It’s also critical to buttress the financial fallout that ensues with high turnover, preventing additional strain on a system already taxed from financial losses due to differed treatment during the pandemic.

During Covid, hospitals have seen increased rates of turnover among employees, which is both costly to morale and the bottom line. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, in 2020, the turnover rate for registered nurses increased 2.8 percentage points to 18.7% industry-wide. Each percentage point change translates to approximately $270,000 lost or saved per hospital.

These numbers have prompted hospitals to rethink their approach to the physical environment and incorporate research-based design strategies that improve well-being for both patients and the staff guiding their recovery. Below, we outline three lessons for designing hospitals and clinics based on current projects NBBJ is working on with Massachusetts General Hospital, Atrium Health, Loma Linda University Medical Center, and Montage Health.

Lesson 1: Employee mental health can be part of a building’s identity.

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston is currently building a 482-bed expansion called Cambridge Street that focuses on staff and patient satisfaction, operational efficiency, and environmental stewardship. Several years ago, NBBJ also oversaw the creation of MGH’s 150-bed Lunder Building. Both facilities offer key insights into how seemingly simple design interventions can have a significant impact on the mental well-being of staff members.

It’s important to note that what we recommend are not amenities, even if some may call them that. Rather than focusing on the “nice to have” perks found in tech company headquarters, many of the spaces in MGH’s facility are “must haves” given the fact lives are on the line: stairwells flooded with light, deliberately quiet patient floors, and safer working conditions, for example.

The Lunder building offers plentiful access to daylight through a glass-encased stairwell used only by staff, who have adopted the corridor as a de facto meeting space (nicknamed the “stair conference room”). Staff also use this stairwell as a place to “be alone together” and report that they find comfort watching employees traverse the stairwell while they use the space to think and decompress.

The building further expands staff’s exposure to daylight — which impacts work-related stress and job satisfaction and is found to affect clinician burnout — through corridors that allow staff to access rooms from an exterior wall. Since less noise can reduce stress among caregivers and also help patients recover from illness, the Lunder building uses a variety of sound-absorbing materials and techniques to make the patient floors 35% quieter than typical health care buildings. Other features designed to minimize noise include sliding doors, distributing work zones for clinical staff across the floor rather than in a single location, and elevators and visitor waiting areas located away from patient rooms.

Finally, staff safety is perhaps the most critical “amenity” of all. For example, overexertion — in the form of repetitive routine physical tasks such as bending, stretching, and standing — account for 45.6% of all injuries occurring to nurses, according to a 2018 article published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These injuries can result in musculoskeletal disorders such as sprains and strains that accounted for 8,730 days away from work among nurses in the private industry in 2016. Features such as motorized overhead patient ceiling lifts or full-height glass doors that provide greater situational awareness can help reduce injuries.

Designing buildings in this fashion makes a difference. For example, post-occupancy data from new inpatient units and staff work areas NBBJ designed for Atrium Health indicates that vast majority of employees feel safer and more at ease in the workplace. In the same post-occupancy evaluation, employees mentioned “the collaborative nature of the research floor,” “increased interaction with colleagues,” and “improved team collaboration” as positive aspects of the new building, further illustrating that opportunities for collaboration and interaction improve employee satisfaction.

Lesson 2: Design features can reduce stress in core working spaces.

Many hospitals are embracing support spaces that enable people to choose how they spend their precious break times. These spaces, both “offstage” (where staff can gather or be alone) and “onstage” (where caregivers see patients), allow staff to spend less time navigating a building and more time recharging.

Loma Linda University Medical Center’s expansion in Southern California boasts an open-core design. It features wide corridors, access to daylight, and the distribution of patient and supply rooms along the wings, which allows staff to connect better with each other and patients. In open-core hospitals, major support functions such as staff lockers, break rooms, and conference rooms are in a centralized hub that connects to patient wings along the exterior. This layout reduces the need for staff to travel between patient and supply rooms, the type of inefficient and repetitive physical tasks that can lead to burnout.

In addition to open-core designs, collaborative clinician rooms — such as the new examination rooms at MGH’s Cambridge Street project, which are sized to allow for multidisciplinary consults — reflect the evolving nature of medicine. Collaborative clinician spaces decrease the load on caregivers and their teams while also providing patients with a new, more effective way to navigate their medical journey.

In the future, these recharging spaces could take different forms, which would acknowledge that everyone refuels in a different way. For instance, because the availability of private spaces has been shown to reduce caregiver stress some hospitals are exploring restorative zones with nap areas for their staff that would be located close to the patient unit for ease of use.

Lesson 3: Good design is ultimately good for business.

Health systems such as Montage Health on the Monterey Peninsula are taking advantage of their less-densely-populated location by incorporating nature into the design of their buildings. For example, Montage’s Ohana Center’s garden-like environment and private patios for staff are designed to lower levels of arousal fatigue — the psychological exhaustion that results from sustained stimulation without breaks. Arousal fatigue is one of the key factors contributing to burnout among behavioral health caregivers, who have an annual turnover rate of 40%.

Other organizations are exploring solutions such as satellite food lockers, mobile ordering apps, and meal programs that offer discounts for nutritious food options. These types of design interventions are investments in staff longevity; they help to reduce stress and encourage positive lifestyle choices, ultimately supporting the mental and physical well-being of the people charged with helping others recuperate.

Behavioral health challenges existed before the pandemic and will persist after it’s over. Consequently, as health care systems navigate the lingering impacts of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that they shift towards a more caregiver-centric mindset. Only by creating spaces and implementing solutions that promote staff well-being and patient healing at the same time can they effectively retain and recruit staff and reduce the financial impact of burnout and turnover. Designing buildings to enhance employees’ well-being will help keep them satisfied and productive.

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