16 May 2013
Author: The ExecuSearch Group
Is your company culture fostering collaboration and the spread of ideas? Employers put a lot of focus on hiring and retention—which are both crucial—but oftentimes, not enough thought is put into how those employees can work together. Years ago, it was common for employers to see water cooler chatter as a productivity sink. Employees were encouraged to maintain brief professional relationships and focus on the tasks at hand. The worry was, while it’s important for colleagues to get along, how much conversation is too much? At what point does it become debilitating to their work? Too much idle chatting was often seen as a mark of a slacking employee, but today, many companies are striving for the opposite: to promote better relationships and collaboration amongst coworkers. Technology has made it easy for most office professionals to reduce their daily interactions with coworkers to a few taps on a keyboard. At work, it can become easy for us to get caught up in our responsibilities and hole ourselves into offices or cubicles and engage in minimal contact with others. In many cases, email has taken the place of inner office communication. Employees now have the majority of tools they need to be efficient in their positions right at their fingertips, and employers usually prefer focused professionals to chatty ones, so doesn’t everyone win? Many would disagree. There are plenty of upsides to employee communication. Many career experts believe that it can “accidentally” facilitate the growth and innovation of new ideas; the word “serendipity,” which is often thought of as somewhat of a happy accident or pleasant surprise, has been used across the industry to describe this idea. The general thought is that, the more opportunities coworkers have to run into one another and strike up conversation, the more likely it will be that new ideas will be shared and cultivated. From strategically laying out their offices to encourage employee run-ins, to planning extravagant social events, many big name companies are taking the serendipity movement seriously. Yahoo even banned working from home in their company earlier this year, claiming that “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.” While many people heard the news of Yahoo banning their work-from-home program as a step backward—not facilitating flexibility with employees—many industry analysts saw the other side of the story: Yahoo’s goal of enhancing interactions and collaborations among coworkers. With a similar goal in mind, Steve Jobs made a slightly more subtle move toward serendipity by locating the only bathrooms of the Pixar headquarters in the central atrium, thus drawing more isolated employees out into the main bustle of the building. However, there are a number of ways you can encourage serendipitous brainstorming without spending exorbitant sums of money or reorganizing your entire business model. The key is to facilitate natural communication. Requiring employees to attend events they don’t want to or to participate in forced exercises can cause them to resent the efforts and resist involvement. Instead, it could be beneficial to: If your company is divided into several different departments, find ways to structure cross-departmental communication. Having different departments work together on relevant projects can not only enhance relationships among coworkers but can also give their work more well-rounded dimension. Develop ways for employees to interact even when they don’t have time for face-to-face communication. For example, a company intranet and/or message board where people can bounce ideas off each other, stay updated on company news, and introduce themselves is a great way of using the technology that has the tendency to isolate us to a communicative advantage. Like Steve Jobs, think strategically about where things should be located in the office. Is your kitchen or coffee maker in a high-traffic spot that encourages conversation, or is it hidden in a corner? Is there a better place for the water cooler? Where do employees congregate most, and how can you draw the more isolated of the bunch to that spot? Encourage employees to stop into your office if they’d like to speak with you rather than email you, when possible, and do the same with them. This can help develop good interpersonal habits that are more personable and show respect. If you need some inspiration, consider this quote from Aristotle: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” While productivity is imperative, ensuring that there are chances in the workday for socializing with coworkers—and thus, for the parts to form a more solid whole—helps to boost productivity and even create new opportunities for it. Sometimes stepping out of your department is all you need for the development of a fresh, outside-the-box idea.