Is Talking a Forgotten Art in the Workplace?

This is National Conversation Week 2018 – when we’re encouraged to talk to friends, family, even strangers because conversation is being drowned out in a sea of social media. You’ve only to watch people in restaurants, staring at their phones, rather than talking to those they are with, to realise that there is something to this.

But surely we don’t need to be encouraged to talk more at work? Do we?

 

Aren’t we talking enough at work?

Undoubtedly work for many people involves a lot of collaboration and communication – and these days there are a range of tools (email, IM, networking services / collaboration platforms like Yammer Microsoft Teams and Slack) to help us connect, share, collaborate and store information – without the need to spend time talking! Isn’t that a more efficient use of time and resources?

Maybe talking is seen as old fashioned – what we did before we had all these tools? The tools allow us to store, archive and search all our activities – it’s not so easy to do that if we meet someone for coffee and a chat, or call them on their mobile. Or perhaps we’ve just become used to using these tools to “get things done” and off our to-do list – rather than waiting until we can talk with someone to do the same thing.

Additionally, talking in the workplace isn’t always encouraged or desirable, if it causes distraction and interrupts people outside of the conversation. Hence the sorry state where people email colleagues sitting only a few feet away, rather than talking to them.

 

Asynchronous working – the enemy of conversation?

The very nature of the way many of us work is that we aren’t all working on the same thing at the same time – we work ‘asynchronously’. Of necessity we work on a task and seek input from others, who will contribute their input when they have time and then return the task or pass it on. This may be due to working in different time zones, workload, personal working patterns and involvement in other activities. It’s hardly surprising that the preferred method of communication under these circumstances is electronic.

Inevitably if we communicate through written media, it means that our ability to communicate clearly and effectively becomes all important. Otherwise a lack of clarity or insufficient information can lead to misunderstandings, a need to seek clarity which may take many attempts to secure,  and a whole host of other complications. Having a conversation instead is more likely to reveal misunderstandings, provide an immediate opportunity to seek clarity or request more information and thus save a lot of time.

None of this is news, really. Teams have long been grappling with these challenges, but often the solution is seen to be electronic – i.e. let’s have another tool to use – that might help. Tools have their place, for sure – but they lack a richness that human interactions contain – body language, tone of voice, warmth and whether the other party is truly paying attention. Face to face and voice communications are the richest in terms of the information they convey about the people engaged on the activity.

 

The Human Touch

AWA’s research into the performance of teams placed an important emphasis on the quality of human relationships. The cohesiveness of our team (i.e. we like each other, we know each other as people, we look out for each other) is the more accurate forecast of team performance. It is hard to imagine we can develop this level of social cohesion through electronic means alone. We have to talk!

Another important factor is the quality of support provided by supervisors / managers in the workplace. It is critical for people to feel their manager has their best interests at heart and is there to help them contribute their ideas, share their knowledge, support them when they are in need and encourage their efforts. Again, it is hard to imagine this can be achieved without talking, through regular collaboration and regular 1:1 discussions. And yet because managers are often stretched and overloaded, these seemingly “nice to have” aspects can go out of the window as there isn’t time.

A final example is trust – a bedrock component of the factors mentioned earlier. While the degree to which we trust each other can be measured through things that happen and are said via electronic communication methods – it is hard to imagine trusting someone that you don’t spend time talking to on a regularly basis.

It is also worth mentioning that a lack of human interaction can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness, particularly when working away from the office. Despite “home” becoming a more acknowledged and legitimate for people to work, office-based colleagues can still take the view that the home worker “shouldn’t be disturbed” and hence they don’t reach out or seek to talk with them – preferring to just send an email or an IM.

 

How can the workplace help us talk?

Office design plays a key part in facilitating workplace conversations, as does workplace culture. Talking to colleagues in the office has to be encouraged and acceptable culturally (so that negative feedback is not provided when manager observes team members talking through work issues over a coffee for example).

That said, for the conversation to take place, there needs to be suitable parts of the office where talk can happen without disturbing other colleagues (interrupting people’s chain of thought has a negative impact on their productivity). This could be in the open plan if it has a noisy / buzzy ambiance, but if it is a quiet, focus area, then noise needs to be taken to other places. Having a range of places for different activities is a vital part of the working environment, enabling people to find the right fit for the conversation / activity they are seeking. If it is too hard to find the right setting, people will give up, probably quite easily (we know people resist walking to another floor, let along getting in a lift to find a place to work!).

If you have “remote” colleagues – either overseas, in another office or working away from the office, why not use your electronic communication devices to connect verbally, or even with video? Research has shown that we need to work harder at the things that are important for team performance (like social cohesion and trust) when we are apart. Recognising the dangers associated with remoteness is the first step – then plan to do things a bit differently to reduce the distance between you.

 

Use National Conversation Week to start some new habits

Why not discuss this piece with your colleagues? Use it as a conversation starter to:

  • See how people feel about whether in-person discussions could help minimize delays that occur over email.
  • See whether people are genuinely feeling a bit isolated from the team because of the reliance on electronic communication.
  • See if colleagues will feel comfortable enough to actively reach out and connect when they may feel out of the loop.
  • As a team, agree what activities and processes are more appropriate for the different types of communication – i.e. phone vs email, audio conference vs video conference, IM etc.
  • Explore the opportunities / benefits of walking meetings; organise some and assess their value.
  • Agree amongst yourselves what you’d like to do to bring you all closer together as a team.

Finally, we should recognise that when we’re in the office, there are at least opportunities to talk to people that we encounter. If you have ‘remote’ colleagues, you don’t just bump into them in the same way – one of you has to create the “bump moment”!

Also, to replace the natural socialisation that takes place in the office when people first arrive, why not have a “social” chat for the first five minutes of a conference call; ask someone how they are at the start of a 1:1 call and really LISTEN to the answer so you learn something about them; use your webcam for some meetings so you can get some visual feedback about how your colleague seems (look for signs of isolation, stress, coping).

Getting the work done relies on good relationships – talking is a vital part of creating and sustaining them – don’t just rely on email.