Building strong relationships in offices is crucial for SMEs and young professionals to thrive, Proper founder warns

Building strong relationships and working together in offices is crucial for fast-growing businesses and young professionals, the founder of UK snack brand Proper has warned.

Cassandra Stavrou, who started the company in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, said they have grown through two recessions because of their resilient workplace relationships.

In lockdown, Proper maintained growth by adapting changing consumer patterns as the workforce began emptying office canteens and flocking to local supermarkets, Ms Stavrou said.

But she warned that prolonged distance over lockdown could still be damaging for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as the development of young professionals.

It comes as the Government campaigns to get more Britons back to the office in a bid to kick-start city centre economies that have been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Stavrou told the Standard: “The office used to be a factory for productivity but now the modern office is a hub for creativity and social bonds.

“SMEs rely on those quick exchanges at the coffee machine—the spontaneous, everyday interactions that take place in the office—to stay creative, agile and relevant.

“The culture of innovation this produces is what makes us special and allows us to challenge the bigger players. It’s one of the reasons that the start-up scene is so exciting.”

While confirming that Proper will abide by government advice on returning to offices, she added: “If we are also allowed to gather in the office then we need to find a way to make that work well – not just for the health of the SME scene – but for the hundreds of thousands of young people those businesses employ and are responsible for.”

Some 60 per cent of younger workers struggled to build relationships with colleagues and 53 per cent with their managers during lockdown, according to a TotalJobs survey 2,000 UK workers in July.

For those who are early on in their career, Ms Stavrou highlighted that lockdown has prevented exposure to an office environment that is “so fundamental” to their development.

Without face-to-face working, Ms Stavrou said: “You just are so siloed and your interactions are dramatically minimised. I just don’t think it is good for your development.”

One 25-year-old told the Standard about how his SME team had found it more challenging to build relationships with partners in lockdown.

Morgan Parry Ward – the head of business development at pre-mixed cocktail company Black Lines that launched 2019 – said he has learned more in the last month by meeting venue partners face-to-face than in all the months of lockdown put together.

While reaching new distributors for their (Covid-secure) pre-mixed drinks, he said: “It is so integral to meet someone in person. We are a slightly new product so we need to go and build those relationships to get people to believe in what we’re doing.

“All the relationships we have built in person are the ones which have either lasted the longest or been the most fruitful for everyone.”

“You can’t make a deal just by email or get a full understanding of what partners want to achieve and how you can help them over Zoom,” Mr Ward added.

Meanwhile, Elissa Makris, a Business Psychologist at NHS-backed wellbeing platform Thrive, said the absence of face-face business networks can cause a sense of disconnection.

She said that this “can be especially daunting for individuals early on in their careers, having to learn organisational processes and navigating new relationships; there will be many questions and uncertainties which they can feel they are left in the dark about.”

“It is the non-verbal cues that help us to form connections and find it easier to approach someone out of the blue, as we might be worried that we are interrupting them, these physical cues are taken away when communicating online making it much harder for us to judge the social situation.”

Ms Markis added that: “Fast growing businesses who bring in many new people and are in need of constant problem-solving and bouncing ideas off each other could also encounter barriers with working from home.”

For Ms Stavrou, the pandemic has still been the “biggest test of leadership” that she has ever experienced.

“Overnight you have a seriously compromised supply chain a dispersed team, bucket loads of economic uncertainty,” she said. “The fact that the bonds in our team were so strong just meant we were really set up to navigate a lot of that.”

Proper, which has grown to become the UK’s No 1. Independent snack brand in just a decade, is now planning to launch more snack ranges despite the economic turmoil.

Ms Stavrou said the company continues to thrive because of “resourcefulness” but also because of their “understanding of people”.

“The emphasis on people and culture from day one has held us in such a good stead in this second recession because we built such a strong foundation internally and despite the distance we have been able to remain really agile and react really quickly.”

“From the start, we were obsessed with relationships, knocking down doors and having zero pride in rocking up at people’s receptions and waiting for the right buyer to turn up.

“It was absolutely bloody-minded about relationships and people.”