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Communication in the Workplace

July 25, 2011

About this time last year, we moved administrative offices from Union School to Liberty School. Part of the move included moving offices closer together to improve efficiency as we reduced staff. The idea was that moving closer together would improve communication. In a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “Who Moved My Cube?”, professors Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks talk about how casual interactions among workers promote trust, cooperation, and innovation, which is partially why we took the “common-sense approach” of creating close offices and common areas. However, the article notes that common sense “is a poor guide when it comes to designing for interaction,” say Fayard and Weeks. Just bringing people closer to one another doesn’t necessarily promote collaboration. In fact, it may inhibit productive communication if certain conditions aren’t met, thus resulting in shorter and more-superficial interaction. Recent studies in a variety of work settings indicate that the quality of work-space and virtual communication depends on how three variables are orchestrated: proximity, privacy, and permission. All three are necessary, they say, and overemphasizing or underemphasizing any of them can cause unforeseen consequences.

Here are the details:

Proximity – When people’s workspaces are closer, they have “a peripheral awareness of one another, a sense that colleagues are present and available.” But even more important than proximity is the traffic pattern – how entrances, restrooms, stairwells, photocopiers, coffee, and vending machines bring people together. “The social geography of a space is a crucial component of its physical layout,” say the authors.

Privacy – “People must feel confident that they can converse without being interrupted or overheard,” In addition, they state that, “They must also be able to avoid interacting when they want to.” Workspace designers have found that alcoves in common areas are ideal for informal, confidential conversations, as well as clear sight lines, so people can see who’s coming and going and control with whom they interact.

Permission – In the past, “Chitchat at the watercooler was just a noisy distraction from work,” say Fayard and Weeks. But some organizations’ coffee lounges, designed specifically to promote informal collaboration, are deserted; people come in, grab a cup of coffee, and leave. Once permission is given, comfortable furniture and work-related machines like photocopiers help promote even more informal interaction in common spaces.

The authors note, “Had the photocopier been designed specifically to inspire social interaction, it could hardly have succeeded better…. Although photocopiers are ostensibly made for easy use by anyone, their complicated features and interfaces can make them frustrating and baffling. They need periodic maintenance – tasks that require specialized knowledge (such as how to install a toner cartridge or extract jammed paper) that tends to be unevenly distributed among users. These characteristics are wonderful stimuli for informal interactions, because they give people natural reasons to launch into conversation. We’ve observed employees turning to one another for help, watching one another to learn more about the machine, and commenting (usually disparagingly) on its operation. These casual conversations can naturally lead to other subjects, some of them work related.” People can also catch a glimpse of the material a coworker is copying and start a conversation regarding that.

The article notes that the same three variables are at work with informal communication on computers and other electronic devices. Organizations can promote virtual proximity by encouraging the use of Skype, instant messaging, Twitter, and other social networking tools and having people keep them open at all times. “Frictionless accessibility is key,” say the authors. “Our studies show that if connecting with a team member online requires more than one click, informal encounters won’t happen. It’s not unlike how people behave in the real world: You’re not going to casually drop in on a colleague who’s on another floor.” Of course it’s also important that the virtual communication platform has useful information and is frequented by knowledgeable, interesting people. To get the ball rolling, some organizations mandate participation to start with, and then the channels take on a life of their own.

As for privacy, people won’t communicate informally if they believe that every communication is being monitored. “Organizations can’t promise complete privacy,” state Fayard and Weeks. “But clearly communicated policies governing who has access to electronic communications and under what circumstances can convey important reassurance.”

Permission is also important in virtual communication – the leader should model the use of electronic tools for social and personal communication (with specified limits). “When virtual-team members come to know one another beyond the confines of their job, the team is strengthened.”

As an administrative team, we often discuss ways to improve communication – moving forward we need to consider both the physical environment and the virtual environment.

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