In the workplace, face-to-face conversation improves the bottom line, leads to higher productivity, and is associated with reduced stress. Recent research supports the business case for conversation. Ben Waber, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, designed technology to closely analyze the relationship between productivity and face-to-face conversation. He found that call centers are more productive when people take breaks together, and software teams produce programs with fewer bugs when they talk more. We don’t receive the same “conversation benefits” from online encounters; they come from being together face-to-face.
But when people learn of these studies, many actively resist what they say about conversation. At work, we often avoid conversation, even when we believe it to be in our best interest.
I’ve studied conversation in business settings for the past five years. Overall, we are too busy communicating, usually online, to have the conversations that count. At every level, people find ways to move in-person conversations to screens on which they feel less vulnerable and more in control. Here are seven steps to help bring those conversations that count back into the workplace.
1. Let go of the panic of real time. We feel safe and productive behind our screens. The peace that used to come from solitude now comes from being alone “with” our crowd on social media. We wouldn’t have time for all of those people if we had to deal with them in “real time.” But something is lost when we don’t make time to be present in our work. Venture out. Practice your skills at gracefully ending conversations. And learn to be more tolerant of a bit of “wasted time.” It’s often when people stumble or hesitate that the most productive work gets done. Give real time a chance.
2. Get rid of meetings that are not meetings.At work we are often presented with a new normal of meetings that are not quite meetings because everyone is both at the meeting and on their phones. In this world, a good meeting leader becomes someone who warns you five minutes before you need to make a presentation that your turn is coming and you should put aside your mail. We are not letting presence or meetings do their work.
3. Challenge the idea that email is the way to show “devotion.” So often, our corporate cultures teach us that we are most valued when we answer our email within minutes. And so, we are left no space for face-to-face conversation. I visit a software company that has micro-kitchens and welcoming lunch rooms, tables whose size is maximized for conversations. But employees feel that they are only showing “devotion” to the firm if they are always on the messaging system.
4. Talk about the challenges of remote work culture.We work so hard to build our online connections. We have so much faith in them. But we must take care that in the end we do not simply feel alone with our devices. If a remote work culture is a necessity in your business, make space for people to talk about feelings of isolation. We don’t have to celebrate necessity; we have to make it work as well as possible.
5. Teach others how to converse. Many millennials go to work and are phobic about conversation because they haven’t been taught its value. And many really don’t know how to pursue conversation. Their parents texted at meals. They have lived a social life that put texting and social media first. Employers need to explicitly mentor for conversation. If there has been a problem at work, schedule time with the person who has had the bump in the road; if an apology is due, offer one or teach how to proffer one.
6. Learn to distinguish solitude from a “managed crowd.” For some, the definition of time for self-reflection has changed: It means time where you have control over your connections. But this is not the same thing at all. We all need to find thinking time that is truly time alone.
Developmental psychology teaches us a powerful lesson: If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely. If we don’t teach our employees to be alone, they will only know how to be isolated and frantic.
7. Design for conversation; design for vulnerability. When we are explicit about the importance of conversation, we acknowledge all the things that make conversation difficult in today’s work environment. Leaders need to be intentional: Design spaces that are device-free and set aside for conversation. Cultive social norms (in meetings, in expectations for email) that put conversation first. Making conversation an explicit value means recognizing when our best interests conflict with our desire to stay on our phones.
This is adapted from Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. (New York: Penguin, 2015). Turkle is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT.