How do we spark meaningful conversations at work? Our people data show that companies where leaders regularly converse with their teams have higher employee morale. What happens when you design your office layout to create more work conversations?
Designing for conversations at work
Pre-COVID I visited a company in Stockholm. Their office layout had been inspired by the middle age village of Vila Nova. So all their hallways and paths in the hyper-modern workplace all led to the centre of the office. As a result, you just can’t avoid ending up there! So it’s the equivalent of an old town square which is where people used to gather. In the modern version of the old village, however, instead of finding fish and vegetable stalls, there was a hipster barista slash receptionist serving fancy-looking espressos. Why did they deliberately design the office so that wherever you went you’d have to pass by the “town square”? Above all, to spark conversations at work.
Change in behaviour
The reason for my visit to the company was to have a conversation with them about how they keep their employees engaged. In short, what do they do differently? As we walked around, the IT Director explained that they wanted to be a catalyst for behaviour change. “We’re interested in how we can create well-being and a nice office environment. To clarify, we want an office that promotes meetings, human encounters, creativity and productivity”, he said. Conversations are in focus. Their office is what is popularly called an activity-based workplace (ABW). Which means the employees no longer have fixed workplaces.
Depending on what you’ll be doing for the day, you might sit in one of the open spaces, the quiet area, or a small group room. For example, you wouldn’t use the open space for your weekly team meeting to respect others. In addition, all spaces are beautifully designed.
Speaking of the impact, the IT Manager said they now meet people from other departments to a greater extent. A little drawback he saw would be that you don’t have as good control of your unit or team. The whole set-up is based on trust, and not having control needs. Can you create the same team feeling when you’re scattered around the office? Or do people naturally seek out their closest teammates for a chat? “Problems in finding people at an activity-based workplace may impair communication and sense of community”, was one of the findings in this study of AWS environments.
The lost art of conversation
As simple as it may seem, a good workplace requires a strong social fabric. So how well do you know your teammates? In certain ways, technology has brought fewer authentic, or fruitful, conversations at work. “Hiding” behind a screen leaving messages on your intranet or shovelling out emails can easily mean that people misinterpret your intentions or words. Consequently, that can quickly escalate and create barriers. Managers usually have conversations about what needs to be done, and who should carry out the tasks. “People don’t talk that openly about their feelings at most workplaces”, says Steve Brennan, CEO at UK-based Bespoke. “They talk about tasks and deadlines more than feelings.“
A statement shared by Sherry Turkle, psychologist and a professor at MIT: “We’re talking at each other rather than with each other.”
Designing the office to optimize the chances that you’ll bump into another colleague, also means that you’re actively designing for dialogue at work. Even people who you might label as “hard to work together with”, usually have good intentions. Perhaps the espresso queue is a good place to start a conversation you otherwise wouldn’t have had. It can start with commenting on the creamy flower the barista elegantly created for his or her coffee. Even a small phrase can lead you, or your coworker, to see things in a new light. And perhaps you’ll find something positive to build from.
Seek first to learn and understand. This way, you can get to know someone else’s perspective on things. This produces productive and respectful relationships. And prevents perhaps more difficult work conversations further down the road. And (honest) conversations are what our people data show is most effective when it comes to improving employee engagement. Which leads to a stronger company culture. This is why the current COVID-19 workplace trend, in conclusion, is complicated from a conversational point of view. What is the equivalent of the old town square, or the office centre with the barista, online?
How do we design for casual conversations at work to happen online?
- About the Author
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Rebecca is co-founder at Celpax (a device to measure employee morale, real-time).
She is passionate about creating better workplaces. With customers in 60 countries, she spends her days helping employees press green smileys instead of red ones.
A social entrepreneur, she is a frequent speaker at conferences where she shares her thoughts on leadership, data and artificial intelligence.
And hey, if you ask nicely, she will send you 1 Celpax at no cost.