I was talking to a colleague the other day and we were discussing the need and drive of generating social interaction in the workplace, more specifically – the meeting/board room. The discussion was on the back of the article, “How To Get People Off Their Phones In Meetings Without Being A Jerk” by Kirstie Hedges. One of the recommendations in the article is to ask people to turn off (or turn in!) their mobile phones when they go to meetings. The purpose was to stop people from looking down at their phones and instead get them to look up and have a social conversation with their colleagues whilst waiting for the meeting to begin. The aim was to increase collaboration and social cohesion among participants.
Then I started to ask why – why did we fall into the trap of turning to our phones rather than the people in the room for interaction? Do we really prefer technology over real people? I am not sure and wonder if there is a potential bigger reason. For a number of years, business has been focused on improving efficiency and productivity, and hence not working on the “task” could be interpreted as not taking the job seriously. Consequently, spending time getting to know each other or being social was not a priority and there may have been a view that it should be done in our own time as it didn’t contribute to getting the work done. With that said, my mind started to think back into history, and I thought perhaps the reason is not just down to our love of technology and efficiency but to learned behaviours being established by the majority of the people actually in the room.
I doubt if anyone would challenge that if we think back to the 1980s or earlier, the workplace was predominately made up of men (and unfortunately this is still true in many cases, although we are trying to re-dress this, but bear with me…). And I wonder if in the boardroom the behaviour was task focused because it seemed that the ‘social elements’ of the job, at the time, would take place in gentlemen’s clubs or restaurants/bars or golf clubs. This perspective could also be further backed by the stereotypical argument that women are “too soft/chatty…” and hence do not belong in the boardroom. As a result, many high-powered women would adapt to taking on more ‘male traits’, Margaret Thatcher springs to mind as a good example, in order to be seen as capable and taken seriously. Therefore, social interaction skills were not used in the meeting room and people instead focused on the task at hand, as ‘chatting in the boardroom’ would be seen as a weakness.
Over the years, for various reasons, businesses tend to have fewer (if any) opportunities for social interaction in onsite bars, sports and social clubs and restaurants, but in the absence of such facilities, socialising hasn’t been encouraged “on the job” / in the workplace. As a result, there is a real deficit of social interaction at work and as organisations start to recognise that it is actually pretty important (see our research on social cohesion) they are recognising a need to provide an environment where this can be addressed. This is evident in the design of informal collaboration spaces, team desks, collaboration booths, which make collaboration and social interactions much easier.
At the same time, businesses already have or are starting to recognise that the millennial generation may be struggling with social interaction. In an age where social media is a dominant way of communicating, this has come as a bit of a surprise. However, it seems that having the ability to communicate electronically is not the same as communicating in person. That may seem obvious, but consider the double whammy of having older members of the workforce who were discouraged from socialising, combined with a generation that struggle to socialise in person. Who are our millennials going to learn their skills from, given how important socialising is to effective team relationships?!
So now we are a professional society where social interaction skill is rare and a key development area. Now I do think there is still a bit to be said about the attraction of digital devices – sometimes they are just an easy escape from the potential awkwardness of face to face interaction –I just need to mention ‘networking’ and half of you reading this will probably make an audible moan or sigh. So, what can we do to rectify this situation because we all know that business is really built on relationships and the strength of the relationship can be the difference between success and failure?
Firstly, I think Kirstie Hedges is right and we should ban all mobile phones from the meeting room to encourage everyone to interact on a personal level (and to pay attention to what is going on!). Secondly, we need to get curious about the people we work with – find out what makes them tick by discovering what is going on in their world, whether that’s the world of work, personal world or both. Through this exercise we may discover whole new insights that will help us do our job better, just by finding out and exploring someone else’s perspective. Not to mention, it’s friendly and shows people we care about them.
Thirdly, I think we need to encourage the millennial generation to attend networking events – take them along with us and ensure they leave their phone in their bag or back pocket. We need to show them how to network and create “cocktail chat”. If we encourage them to research the concept of networking, they will learn what safe topics are appropriate so that they can bring it back into their workplace; like identifying 3 things they would like to get/achieve from/at the event.
We also need to instil these habits in ourselves – I would argue all experienced staff have been on the training course that has taught the rules of networking. Our challenge is we are either not confident in employing them or have forgotten them and/or feel awkward doing them. But, the best thing about networking and social interaction is we are ALL in the same boat – some may make it look easier than others, but I can guarantee everyone feels awkward, unconfident and forgetful at times. There are plenty of awkward social interactions that even the best of us have, for example when we forget the name of someone we have known for ages and hence feel awkward introducing them, or we can’t remember the name of the person we only met 30 seconds before, or for other reasons.
The beauty of it all is we are in the same boat together, so we might as well put our phone away, sit down, get comfortable and strike up a conversation – who knows what we’ll learn!
This blog was written by AWA Senior Associate, Jennifer Bryan.