In the last year I have worked with various groups on team development, change management or diversity programmes. What has struck me time and again is the level of disconnect between people who spend a good proportion of their lives working together. Before commenting, I thought I would share a couple of case studies.
A public sector department of forty staff I worked with had an average tenure of sixteen years. Some had been in post for a short while, whilst others had up to 35 years in the department, they appeared to know each other really well. On the morning of the first programme, I asked participants to pair off and share a detail about themselves with their partner, something previously unknown. A few moments later, I was surprised by the excitement in one corner of the room.
When back together as a full group, I invited anyone to share with the something they had found out. It took no time to discover the cause of the earlier animation. It transpired that two people in the team, having known each other for nearly thirty years, shared a hobby. They both collected buses and memorabilia about them. This might sound odd to most of us, but they had pictures, timetables, models and tickets from buses around the world, adorning their homes. They had never shared their interest, perhaps out of embarrassment of this strange hobby, missing thirty years of potential friendship.
Similarly, in a fifteen person team building workshop for a third sector organisation, I encountered two people who were both adopted; the organisation’s financial controller a part-time retired accountant and the young receptionist. They differed in every perceivable aspect, their gender, age, race, culture, religion and nationality. But the fact of both having been adopted superseded all difference.
Having previously had little to do with each other beyond the polite “good morning” or “did you have a good weekend”, these two became closest colleagues and workplace friends. Their shared experience of adoption was a powerful bond between them.
The organisation’s HR manager contacted me some weeks after the workshop. She was astounded by the impact the new relationship had on the entire staff team. Their closeness created a strengthening; a foundation on which the organisation’s management built a strong workplace community.
I am conscious of how many managers, in today’s organisations, actively seem to discourage staff communication. One office has banned more than one person at a time making tea/coffee because too much time was spent chatting in the kitchen area. Another has implemented a workstation alert system, so a person knows when their document has been printed, preventing them from having to wait by the communal printer, lest they embark on idle chatter with a colleague, whilst queuing. Communication is further restricted by increasing numbers of staff working through their lunch break, taking a quick sandwich whilst sitting at their desk.
There is an impact of reducing communication in the workplace; less colleague sharing or friendship forming and a general disconnection between people. The result is increasingly fragile teams and individuals less able to deal with conflict, difference of opinion and organisational change.
Dysfunction between a recently appointed manager and a senior member of his team was dealt with when I discovered that they followed the same football team. Two open-plan office working women, who appeared to detest each other’s company, found a common bond through a shared love of Latin dance –something they had never shared.
The value of increased communication is incalculable. The building of workplace communities, increased contact and care between workers, reduction of conflict and other negative workplace issues, a freeing up valuable management time for creativity and development, less absenteeism and sick leave, a greater sense of organisational belonging and associated retention, stronger teams, better understanding of managers, less grievances or accusations of workplace bullying… the list can go on. Finally, the natural conclusion is greater individual and team productivity with associated bottom-line benefit.
Whatever the size of the organisation, it will benefit from being an employer of choice, with a cohesive and caring staff team. Ten or ten thousand employees will all benefit. It’s time to start a process of communication and real sharing in the workplace.