Is anyone listening?

Is anyone listening?

Abe Winter gets as much work as possible done between 7 and 10 a.m., while his colleagues are just getting out of bed or otherwise occupied in spin classes. It’s a race against time. Once his co-workers begin logging onto their computers from the train and strolling into the office, Winter, who works for an app developer in New York, knows his window of productivity is closing.

The gurgling pings emanating from his devices, sporadic at first before turning into a ceaseless bombardment, serve as a final countdown.The 34-year-old still has to put in a full day during normal business hours, but his role unofficially morphs from programmer to communicator as he spends his time responding to Slack messages with incomplete phrases and emojis rather than composing complex symphonies of code.

“I’ve given up on being 100 percent productive,” Winter says. “Engagement has become the primary goal.”

Recent years have seen a number of workplace innovations meant to open the channels of communication and collaboration, allowing ideas to flow more freely and information to be on demand. Open floor plans and digital messaging platforms were meant to bring employees closer together. As it turns out, many experts fear these modern adaptations often have the opposite effect, carrying us farther apart.

Indeed, in one of the greater workplace ironies, studies now suggest that today’s well-intentioned forms of communication are driving some workers to the brink of quitting.

The reasons for all this, of course, are wide ranging, but experts think the problem may center around the very foundation that communications is built on: empathy. With so much noise around us and rapid-fire message apps on continuously, we are less likely to see a colleague’s point of view and more apt to be judgmental and impulsive.

Rather than considering whether someone might be in a workflow before asking a question, we ping without pause—and expect an immediate response. Instead of engaging meaningfully, we isolate behind headphones and keyboards. We work from home. We check out.

Recovering the human component in our communications

When it comes to corporate communications, there are three main forms: 1) company to employees, 2) employees to company, and 3) employees to employees.

These days, workers message one another by text or other messaging services, management is making important announcements via the intranet, and employees give feedback through surveys.

Certainly, with the help of technology, a lot of these communications are far faster and more efficient than in the past. But critics say most firms employ a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t take into account a person’s role and duties.

And the more ways to communicate there are, the more the workplace can seem fragmented. “Employees may feel like there are so many channels and they don’t know where to get answers,” says Robyn Hannah, senior director of global communication at Dynamic Signal, a Silicon Valley-based company that offers mobile enterprise platforms.

“We’re forgetting different employees work differently. We need to modernize and streamline how we communicate with employees, so they feel informed, prioritized, and connected.” But not overwhelmed. 

Dynamic Signal releases an annual analysis; this year’s was titled, “The Crumbling State of Employee Communication.” Data shows 33 percent of employees are so frustrated with poor communication that they want to quit. And an About.com survey found the top three reasons people don’t like their jobs are related to communication.

“Companies are starting to acknowledge that communication is critical, but it doesn’t always get credit for top- and bottom-line impact,” Hannah says.

And while companies may be coming to terms with the importance of internal communication—many are raising the prominence of chief communication officers—the next step is translating that awareness into design-oriented, research-driven best practices.

Open floor plans. Initially seen as a cost saver, executive planners continue to be drawn to the unburdened architectural aesthetic and idealistic claims that they foster creative collaboration. But the downside has been well documented: a published Harvard Business School study, for instance, found that when employees moved from individual cubicles to an open floor plan, face-to-face interactions decreased 73 percent, and employees spent 67 percent more time on email and 75 percent more time on instant messaging apps.

“You end up sitting in the staircase” just to find quiet, says Jose Fermoso, who has worked at several Silicon Valley tech and media companies and experienced the shift away from cubicles.

Digital natives entering the workforce today are used to having near-constant access to a virtual microphone with which to broadcast their thoughts anytime, anywhere—something they view as an inalienable right. Within modern communication constructs, the loudest too easily silences the best. A false sense of intimacy is created, while meaningful collaboration is replaced by the adrenaline rush of quick hits.

“Leveraging digital tools and platforms needs to operate in service of authentic human connections, not in place of them,” Hannah says. “The rise of technology and democracy of communication requires us to train people differently.”Open-concept offices likely aren’t going anywhere. That isn’t the point. The point is to recognize how open-concept spaces, whether physical or virtual, influence communication.

Acknowledge how today’s workforce operates and design communication norms that aid productivity and nurture real relationships. If we accept that more people are going to work remotely, whether that be several blocks or continents away, then the question becomes: What does it look like when technology is leveraged in service of humanity?

Plenty of successful globally distributed firms have answered this question.Sam Yen spent 13 years at SAP, a software company based in Germany, before going to work for JPMorgan Chase earlier this year. As chief design officer, it was his responsibility to weave an innovation mindset into the company culture. Often that meant working with teams spread out across the world from Palo Alto to Bulgaria, Dublin to China, Israel to India. Even in situations with globally diverse teams, Yen cautions against an overreliance on technology.“It always comes down to empathy,” Yen says, “making sure you’re taking time to listen and understand where people are coming from.”

Get people together in a social context before they actually work together, and create opportunities for employees to see one another as people, each with a backstory and a future, advises Yen. Opt for the silent brainstorm then give everyone an equal amount of time to share their ideas, so one voice doesn’t drown out the rest. Make sure immediate teams are on the same rhythm. Spend time designing the most effective workflow: When is it necessary to Slack someone? Or would an email, phone call, or video conference be more appropriate? If employees will be working remotely, invest in dependable telepresence.

The real problem is, I don’t think managers understand how employees get work done,” Winter says.”

How to Design Meetings Your Team Will Want to Attend

How to Design Meetings Your Team Will Want to Attend

Nov 14, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.

By Paul Axtell

Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra

There’s a lot of advice out there about how to make meetings more efficient and productive. And while it’s true that leading focused, deliberate conversations is critical to organizational performance, meetings aren’t just about delivering results. There’s another outcome that leaders should be paying more attention to: creating a quality experience for each participant.

What is a quality experience in a meeting? I define it as when employees leave feeling more connected, valued, and fulfilled. Of course, you should still be focused on achieving the meeting outcomes, but thoughtful meetings and productive ones don’t have to be at odds.

We begin by asking people to reflect on their best team experience and answer two questions: What does a powerful group look like? What does it mean to be powerful in a group?

The second question typically elicits answers like these:

  • “I never left anything important unsaid. When I spoke, I felt like I was being heard, and I believed that what I said had an impact.”
  • “It felt like I was really a member of the group. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in each other and in what was going on in our lives.”
  • “I knew that I added value, both in the meetings and outside of them.”

In other words, each group meeting added to the experience of being a productive, valued member of the group.

Here’s what I’ve seen leaders do to create that quality experience:

Work hard on being present. Take adequate time to prepare so that you can be available and attentive before and during the meeting. If you’re running late because of another meeting or still thinking about how to conduct this meeting, you’ll be preoccupied and not truly available for anyone who wants to connect.

Preparation allows you to relax about leading the meeting and pay more attention to “reading the room” — noticing how people are doing as they walk in, and throughout the meeting.

Demonstrate empathy. People associate attention with caring — your attention matters. Observe, listen, ask thoughtful questions, and avoid distractions and multitasking. Empathy is a learned skill that can be practiced by simply setting aside your phone and computer for two to three hours each week and really listening to someone. Meetings can be your primary place to hone this skill.

Set up and manage the conversation. Ask the group for permission to deliberately manage the conversation. It’s important to establish some guidelines about distraction. Ask people to:

  • avoid using technology unless it is pertinent to the topics
  • avoid any distracting behavior — verbal or nonverbal
  • listen and respect people when they’re speaking
  • invite others to speak if their view needs to be heard

Include enough time on every topic to allow broad participation. This means having fewer agenda items and more time allocated to each topic. As a target, put 20% fewer items on your agenda and allow 20% more time for each item.

Slow down the conversation to include everyone. I like the idea of social turn-taking, where you have a sense of who has or hasn’t spoken and whether the conversation is being controlled or dominated by one or more people. You don’t need to set this up as a rule, but you can model it as an inclusive style of conversation, so people become more likely to notice who hasn’t spoken yet.

To implement this practice, call on people gently and strategically. By gently, I mean make it feel and sound like an invitation — not some method of controlling participation. By strategically, I mean think through, during your preparation, who needs to be part of the discussion for each topic. Ask yourself:

  • Who would be great at starting the conversation?
  • Who is affected by the outcomes and therefore needs to be asked for their view?
  • Who is most likely to have a different view?
  • Who are the old hands who might sense whether we are making a mistake or missing something?

Check in with people at specific times. Begin each meeting with a question: “Does anyone have anything to say or ask before we begin?” Ask it deliberately and with a tone that signals that this conversation matters to you. And then wait. Pausing conveys that you’re not interested in getting to someplace other than right here, right now — that this conversation matters. Don’t spoil your pauses by making remarks about the lack of response or slowness of a response. People often need a few moments to reflect, find something to say, and think about the best way to express it. Just wait.

Once people realize that you are willing to pause, they’ll become more aware, and when they have a question, they won’t worry that they are slowing down the meeting.

High-quality conversations with broad participation allow people to get to know each other in ways that lead to friendship and collaboration. It’s the act of being with other people in an attentive, caring way that helps us feel that we are all in this together. Crafting a quality experience in your meetings takes time, but it’s worth it.