As someone with over a decade of experience in remote work, the greatest loss and challenge is missing the ability to grab a fellow employee for a quick question or joint brainstorming session.
One of the best office designs I ever had the opportunity to use was at a management consulting firm. We knocked out the exterior wall of a conference room, put in couches and whiteboards, and christened it the creative area.
If you were working on a project, you could park yourself in that space and anyone walking by could stop in for a quick round of input. We developed some of our best answers to complex incentive compensation questions in that space thanks to the comments from a wide variety of employees. It was nothing formal, and that was a big secret to its success.
Below are five things missing in our current work environment, and new ideas for how to remedy the losses.
Let’s set the stage: a mid-level manager needs to spend some political capital to get support for a particular endeavor. It might be convincing someone in legal to reconsider a particular redlined clause in a customer contract, or getting finance to pre-approve an expense that is out of the standard policy.
These are better done face-to-face and are part of any company. Politics at work is not necessarily a bad thing. As Granger, Neville, and Turner put it in their paper, Political Knowledge at Work, Conceptualization, Measurement, and Applications to Follower Proactivity: “Knowledge about others is a defining characteristic of interpersonal relationships... understanding others at work, especially others in positions of power and authority like leaders is a pathway to gaining power and influence.”
Short questions that don’t require formal meetings, but need to be quickly answered:
Stopping a member of the professional services team to ask for a quick update on a specific implementation, or someone in customer support about a client’s current mood before asking them to be a reference.
Seemingly embarrassing questions that a new member of the team has, but they don’t want to call too much attention to their lack of knowledge. Anything from “where can I find this information?” to “How would you approach this challenge?” It is easier to ask a quick question than try to schedule time with someone.
Finding five minutes with a member of the executive team can also be a great way for an employee to not only be known (since we are all working on our career paths) but also for the exec to acquire some unvarnished knowledge from the field. I always requested a desk near the coffee station or on a busy pathway when we shifted to an open office floor plan.
While others wanted a secluded corner, I used the foot traffic to get more done in a day than others could do in a week. During the time it took the new machine to make someone a custom cup of coffee, I could get a short answer and move on. If I needed to focus, a bright red pair of Beats headphones provided the external signaling to leave me alone (and I always had a fresh cup of caffeine as well).
As I started to put my thoughts together for this piece, I found a series of publications in the American Journal of Roentgenology—Hallway Conversations in Physics. They run a series of short pieces summarizing research (with citations) that can be consumed in a quick read. In the way a Ted Talk is less than 20 minutes but provides great value, these short journal articles summarize cutting edge research in a quickly digestible format. Those Hallway conversations in the workplace need to continue as companies contemplate a more distributed workforce as a permanent model.
So, how do you change the culture?
First, and most importantly, do NOT try to replace the Hallway Conversation with another meeting. Grady (2013) describes the source of modern worker misery as “a global epidemic of bad, inefficient, overcrowded meetings that is plaguing the world’s businesses.”
In the book Managing Meetings in Organizations, research is presented showing that, “the mere number of meetings can affect employee well-being (e.g., Rogelberg, Leach, Warr, & Burnfield, 2006).” and “Regardless of meeting effectiveness, the mere existence of a meeting can already represent a stressor as meetings interrupt the workflow and consume valuable work time (Luong & Rogelberg, 2005).” You can also grab a copy of Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting.
Identify the most important “Hallway Conversations” you need to replace:
- Incidental learning
- Quick requests
- Mentorship help
- Cross-departmental interactions
- Social interaction (don’t discount this one. Our work families are important to all of us.)
Determine how you can replicate, replace, or substitute. I have a few simple rules that I am trying to follow right now:
- If an email is on its third back-and-forth - pick up the phone.
- If a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, push back.
- If a meeting doesn’t end with a to-do for you, ask why you are included
- If someone sends you a chat (Slack, iMessage, Hangouts, Chatter, etc.) see if you can answer it quickly.
Nothing says you can’t do a 5-minute video call. I love the /Zoom functionality in Slack. If I am in a Slack conversation at work, I will drop a Zoom invite and link up with someone quickly. I try to make myself open to anyone in the company for a quick conversation because I never know what short discussion will lead to our next innovation, our next new customer, or our next great employee finding a better path for their own career.
Keep the Hallways open for conversation.