Declining Social Skills in the Corporate World

I’m guessing it was around 2008, when the financial meltdown crushed many corporations that a subtle shift in social skills exhibited in the workplace began to take place. When the survivors were tasked with “doing more with less,” to an intolerable degree, the little courtesies, the “nice to have’s” as they are termed, were the first to be sacrificed.

I made the exit from corporate life for saner pastures during the meltdown. When I returned to the corporation, intermittently, as a consultant in the post•meltdown, bailout•strapped stage, I began see these changes in behaviour. My observations below of the “slippage” is not an indictment on the survivors, but form a question in my mind on whether those days of corporate finesse will ever return, and whether we will end up developing a “next generation” for which the rougher edges of conduct are all they will have experienced and will replicate.

The first casualty was the administrative assistant, the person who got everyone • including the boss • organized, who arranged meetings, travel, prepared expense reports and made sure that all the equipment in the office worked. Without this major domo, inexperienced executives were now double and triple booking into meetings, surfing inflexible online tools to book travel and record expenses, wondering why the heck they had not carried their passport and were being denied boarding at the airport, and scratching their heads over where to hide that pesky mini•bar bill that had crept up on their credit card statement. Broken printers and fax machines sat around because no one knew who or where to call, or had the time to do so.

Meetings had become expensive time wasters. There were time•waster meetings even in the pre•collapse days, especially the infamous “meeting to decide if we need a meeting” meetings. But some form of human interaction is required to conduct a meaningful enterprise. I would challenge the person who says that he, or she, can run an organization with only a virtual meeting tool, a conference phone line and a laptop loaded with e•mail, internet browser and productivity tools like Microsoft Office, and without human contact. Managing relationships become crucial as you navigate upstream in the organization, and the person who interacts only with his machine will soon face his limitations. And yet, confirming attendance at a meeting and not showing up because one is quadruple•booked is becoming commonly accepted. “Oh, he must be busy!” is the cop out. “Well, aren’t I? The one who showed up?”

I remember declining people for jobs in the “old days.” I would write to all the interviewed candidates, thanking them for their time and effort, even making suggestions to improve their marketability for their next attempt. I later even hired some of those candidates I had declined earlier. Now, silence is the message for “you did not make the cut.” Non•answered e•mails are virtual firewalls that an executive surrounds himself with, like a “do not disturb” sign or a “thanks, but no thanks” banner. I’m even told that firing is done via e•mail. How tacky!

The business trip is now the most scrutinized expense and several levels of pre•approval are needed, when once it was just your boss who approved, or not. Admittedly, excessive business travel, especially to survey one’s corporate empire (which can change in the flicker of an organizational change), team•building trips, or those R&R (Reward & Recognition turned into Rest & Recreation) junkets are suspect. But major client visits, project kick•offs, and vendor negotiation meetings still need to happen – face to face, please!

I wonder whether some day in the future, my adult grandchildren will think that I am a fairy tale spinner when I sit on the back porch and tell them stories about my “romantic” corporate life, when we returned phone calls within the day, e•mails within 24 hours, attended every meeting we accepted and offered alternative times when unable to, said “no” without hiding, hired and fired in person, and travelled the world to do business while maintaining a healthy work life balance. Yes, it might sound like a fairy tale.

The Facebook Family

I remember the old days when we wrote letters to relatives and friends in distant lands, when we phoned the ones nearby to “keep in touch” and when we read the obituary notices to find out who had died.

I have to admit I do not do any of that today. All my friends and most of my far•flung family are now on Facebook. If I don’t see them on the newsfeed, there must be something wrong. Time to “poke” them. Now, you have to be worried if your “friend count” suddenly drops – did someone die? Or did they “un•friend” you because of something you said (or did not say) on your wall or heavens forbid) on his wall? Have I overstayed my welcome by posting my gossip and self•promotion on my friend’s walls? Click – and I am history!

I find out about new births when baby pictures start appearing on my friends’ Facebook pages; or of people moving homes when the backgrounds of those pictures change. “And why are you putting on so much weight, guy – sitting in front of the computer too much?” “What’s with the glasses? Eye strain?” Join the club.

Do I need to send greetings cards anymore? How about a poke instead • “Happy birthday, man, how’s it hanging?” Simple! No need to go to a wedding or birthday party any more – just have my friends upload grainy photographs from the party, captured on a cell phone camera, so that I could check them out and “be there.” No need to come to my parties either, I’ll just post pictures of myself on my Facebook page, blowing out umpteen candles on a $10 supermarket cake, with only me in attendance.

You know, despite all this networking, it feels kind of lonely out in Facebookland. We seem to have networked ourselves into obscurity. To feel guilty when you phone someone and get the real person instead of his voice mail is now becoming a common human reaction. Who would rather be sitting with their spouse or significant other on the same couch and texting each other instead of conversing? I mean, we do it at the office, why not at home? We may get some peace and quiet after all (other than for those tic•tic sounds of keyboards or phone pads). And in ten years from now, our vocal chords would have atrophied and we will have ended up with a circumscribed vocabulary heavily populated with “LOL, Hi, OMG, Hi5” and other acronyms that I am trying hard not to learn.

I don’t know, man – especially in these days of cheap long•distance phone calls and free video conferencing, I think we need the face•to•face more than the face•book. I wonder when the tide will change; when our keyboarding fingers will ache for a rest, our vocal chords thirst for exercise, and our souls hunger for the presence of other souls to remind us that we exist, and are defined, only in relation to community