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Managing workplace conversations is the key challenge before business leaders during Covid-19

While it is not uncommon to change hats from journalism to becoming marketing communications entrepreneur, there ain’t many who move on to become authors, professional speakers and make their passion, their vocation. Ritu Kant Ojha, who calls himself a conversationalist is the Author of Real Conversations in Digital Age and helps organizations improve the conversation skills of their employees. Vikypedia is excited to interview Ritu and understand his aspirations and motivations.

You are into training and coaching with a focus on conversations. In your view, would workplace conversations become a challenge for business leaders?

Thankfully, all our programs were “phygital” and digital-ready from day one. Much before Covid-19 hit the world. However, conversation that happens in-person involves eye movements, body posture, tone of voice, etc. All of that gets compromised when we are on a video call with numerous other people seen as thumbnails on our laptops. A trainer has to be quite mindful and sensitive to this change. I am helping teams of my clients adapt and transition to the new normal. But, behaviours built over the years do not switch within weeks. So, yes, managing workplace conversation is going to be a big headache for CXOs across companies. The senior management in agile companies are already discussing how to train their young managers, the sales staff, women employees, and middle managers. Currently, our focus is on the efficient flow of information between teams of clients and optimising online conversations. The fundamental premise of Real Conversations is a mix of right questions and assertive listening which we are imparting through our blended modules.

See, the businesses have found work-from-home as a silver lining in the entire lockdown pain. While it will lead to massive savings due to cut down on commercial rentals, the workplace conversations have taken a major hit. This is one of the biggest challenges business leaders would have to grapple with. When people meet face-to-face, the talk is impromptu and goes beyond the agenda. It helps build trust, breeds creativity, and allows co-workers to manage disagreements in real-time. Most organisations are not equipped to efficiently implement work-from-home policies since there are little or no well-established standard-operating-procedures available that would help employees smoothly transition from face-to-face conversation to completely digital communication. Mind you, it requires a serious change of mindset and behaviour. It might still make sense for passive profiles or entry-level jobs. But those that have to constantly co-ordinate, seek or provide guidance and/or lead teams will find it complicated to put a point across, leave aside fully understanding what the other person is telling over a video call without missing at least some part of a message. 

Behaviors certainly take time to change. How did you balance the efficacy of offline programs with online delivery since the lockdown was too sudden?

While the demand for digital solutions has increased enormously post Covid-19, through my interactions with business leaders over the years, I knew that the demand for digital is going to be the key driver for our training sessions. Significant research has gone into making sure that both content and its delivery is interesting. See, there are claims by every other capability building oragnisations to have seamlessly transitioned to digital but that has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The plain vanilla strategy of replacing the offline training format with online content would not work because the way a session is consumed online is quite different. 

I have made sure that the entire delivery is conversational and there is no real limit on the Q&A sessions with the participants. The exercises have been “gamified” and they make sure participants enjoy doing them and stay engaged. Another important aspect is the usage of positive psychology principles in whatever we do. Conversations are known to reduce stress, build trust, and make people happier. While we are helping participants develop conversation skills, the indirect benefit is of helping them live a less stressful life. 

Most training programs are templated and generic. How do you differentiate in this saturated market?

I am glad you asked this question. With a lot of efforts, feedback from various stakeholders, and several trials over a year, we created three separate services that cut out the mumbo-jumbo we often hear in the market and focus on the impact. Our key offering is TakingWings that is centered on management trainees and young managers. The second is Wenus which focusses on customised training for women employees. The third, for senior management, is termed as Wahlife. It primarily focusses on conversational leadership. Under Wahlife we would soon offer unique offsites for the CXOs. We would announce the details in July this year.

The major demand is coming for training the sales staff who are facing low morale due to fewer opportunities to pitch and sell products and services. A bunch of discussions currently going on is around how to improve the online conversations between employees and reduce the chances of misunderstandings.

Conversational leadership sounds like an interesting term. Can you elaborate it further?

Leadership as we understand, and as taught in the business schools, has changed. The leadership style of a bunch of people deciding what to do and sending out the message through corporate communications, no more works in modern times. Millennials have a different set of expectations from the leaders they are working with. Leadership has to be conversational – that includes asking the right questions and listening to what is being said. In today’s times of digital conversation, we are forgetting that the cross-pollination of ideas occurs only through conversations. The choice a leader has is depending on the intelligence of a bunch of people versus the collective intelligence of thousands of people in the organisation who are constantly conversing with each other. The leaders with the industrial era mindset will lose opportunities to engage the larger set of employees and eventually the collective intelligence of the organisation. Peter Drucker believed the leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but certainly, the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask. In the data-driven world, there is so much to know that one single person cannot be aware of everything and therefore the right set of questions – the ones that empower – are key to leadership. Under Real Conversations, we have moved a step ahead of asking the right questions and focus on questions followed by a meaningful dialogue.

I have seen you on all three fronts of communication – journalism, marketing communications, and then as an author and speaker. Which one did you enjoy most, and why?

It is quite a tough one. I think each had a different set of challenges which made them unique and interesting in ways that cannot be directly compared. Journalism was the foundation that gave me the breadth which helped me understand marketing and public relations much better. It empowered me to build self-confidence by providing the opportunity to converse with CXOs, top economists, bureaucrats, actors, politicians, etc. This aided me immensely when I started my agency, Proact Brandcomm. Brand positioning helped me work closely with clients right from 2 member startups to multi-billion dollar conglomerate. What was hidden from my eyes as a journalist came to the fore and I could see both the bright as well as the dark side of the corporate. It was going quite well when the self-introspection bug bit me. I was passionate about conversations. I wanted to write about it, consult brands on it, do a podcast maybe, and running the agency was not providing the necessary bandwidth. Consequently, about 2 years back I set out to research how conversations have evolved in the times of social media. This lead to my book Real Conversations in Digital Age, which was by God’s grace received well. Then a couple of large brands reached out asking if I can work with them on workplace conversations and that gave shape to present Real Conversations training that I am into now. If I still have to pick one out of these three, I will choose the present one since I have never relished anything as much as working on conversations. The previous two occupations were kind of a work I had to do for a living, while conversation as a domain is my passion. I am doing a podcast “Real Conversations With Ritu Kant Ojha” that is slowly gaining traction and I intend to use it to talk about the knowledge gained over the years on improving conversation skills, apart from inviting thought leaders from different fields to share knowledge with the audience.

This article was first published in Vikypedia Here. 

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