One of the biggest barriers to productivity in the workplace is a breakdown in communication. Without regular dialogue, teams can lose focus on the bigger picture, strategies can get muddled, and individuals are more likely to be misunderstood.
Whilst recent advances in technology have made it easier than ever for people to communicate quickly and across vast distances, it has reduced the amount of face-to-face contact people have, and in the workplace multiple studies have shown this to have an adverse effect on productivity. Productivity isn’t the only benefit of Face-to-Face time. Getting people talking in real life can increase happiness and creativity, and instil a sense of belonging.
So how do you get people talking more?
One simple and effective solution is to introduce a sit-stand format to your working environment. Raising people’s seated position by just 12 inches can naturally engineer conversations, leading to better engagement and ultimately better productivity.
Raising The Bar
Standing up, or at least sitting in a higher seat makes you talk more. Think about some different social environments, like at a bar, or a cafe. The seating is arranged so that those seated and standing have roughly the same eye level. This isn’t the case for all seating in a bar, and it is incredibly awkward when one person in your party hasn’t got a chair. If you are standing with people who are all seated in normal height chairs, you feel disconnected, and not part of the conversation. In fact quite often you can’t even hear the conversation at all.
Another great example of this is at football matches. Standing created an atmosphere and stimulated conversation among fans. Since the mandatory introduction of seating at stadiums, safety has dramatically improved, but it’s no surprise there is a direct correlation between the conversion to all seated stadiums and a decline in atmosphere at matches. No wonder there have been strong calls to reintroduce dedicated standing areas.
Taking these ideas to the office, having sit stand desking gives workers the opportunity to work at standing eye level, encouraging face-to-face interaction on a more regular basis. If someone is at their workstation at a higher level, they are more approachable, and more likely to engage in conversation with fellow workers passing them by, or sitting around them, and less likely to cocoon themselves at their desk and stay insular.
This idea hasn’t been lost of Neil Bartley, director at design firm Studio O+A, whose clients include Nike & Facebook.
“In the past ten years, standing-height tables have become ubiquitous in retail, hospitality, and certainly the workplace…There is something to the height segregation between sitters and standers that engenders awkward interactions, like people inadvertently sneaking up from behind or talking down to their peers.”
Simply raising people up is only half of the story though. Creating an office environment that allows for “collisionable hours” will let you reap the most benefits from bringing everyone to the same level.Creating workspaces with higher or standing desks enables individuals to be more open to chance encounters and engage in conversation with those passing by.
A term coined by Zappos CEO Tony Hseih, ‘collisionable hours’ refers to the moments in time when you are more likely to bump into people; to have random encounters with people in your circle. In the office, this can lead to productive collaborations, the sharing of ideas, expanding of social networks, and generally creating a stronger workplace community, pulling people out of their silos and working together.
Utilising open plan office design, with communal collaborative areas and walkways in front of desks, forces these collisions, and gets people talking. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs recognised the importance of these chance meetings, and meticulously planned his offices to encourage as many as possible, with one of his last creations an office design consisting of a circle of rings of open workspaces around a central courtyard, inviting everyone to congregate in the centre. Even the locations of the bathrooms were important to his designs.
The Science Bit
All this evidence suggests that the most successful workers are those that communicate, and by raising people up 12 inches, they are better placed to engage in conversation.
But why is face-to-face so important?
In the 21st century we have an array of digital tools which often replace conversation. GoToMeeting, Flowdock, and Igloo are all examples of new collaborative tools that get people talking to each other, and many evangelise their productive qualities, as highlighted in a recent Financial Times article:
“I called the person who showed me around the media production company and asked if anyone ever chatted there.
“Of course they do, he replied. They chat all the time. When I said I could not hear anything, he laughed at me pityingly, then said some of the saddest words I have ever heard: “We do it on Slack.””
Whilst digital tools are rapidly expanding, there are many qualities of Face-to-face interactions which are not transferred to the digital or even postal realm.
It’s Good For Your Brain
A study by the Beijing Normal University found that face-to-face interactions stimulate your brain in ways that a virtual meeting cannot. Facial expressions and body language are important elements of a conversation, which are completely negated in text based conversation, and muted somewhat in video conferences. This integration of multimodal sensory information allows a level of neural synchronisation (reduces confusion) and leads to greater productivity and team harmony.
Developed by Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, the idea of “mirror neurons” is that seeing an individual take action causes your brain to fire up the neurons associated with the same action. For example, you see someone laugh, you want to laugh too. If you want to kick start a new project you are excited about, explaining it in person will help to convey your excitement about it much more than firing off an introductory email.
Touch Builds Trust
Face-to-face interactions regular begin with physical contact. These ritualised greetings, be it a hug or a handshake, help in building trust between individuals. Researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard found that negotiators who began proceedings with a handshake were more open and honest, and reached more favourable outcomes. Shaking hands activates the part of your brain which is associated with rewards. An emoticon doesn’t compare.
And when we trust each other more, we are more open to sharing ideas. We are less afraid to look stupid, and more willing to confide in each other. This leads to greater collaboration, and greater creativity.
Technology is a vital tool in getting teams to work more effectively, but we should never underestimate the power of real life interactions. Designing your workplace to stimulate these “collisions” and to encourage face-to-face conversations is undoubtedly an important issue, and as we step ever more into the digital realm, will only become more so, and it all starts with bringing people up onto the same level.
Richard Ferris on 5 Apr 2017, 12:44:00