This week I was in conversation with the incredible Chris Rennison, People Director at the Stroke Association. We’d scheduled an agenda free meeting to reconnect and chew the fat. Our time together flew by as we shared stories, discussed future plans and past struggles, pondered over current challenges, and discovered new stuff about each other. It was a perfect example of what Chris referred to as ‘intentional communication’.
The pandemic has driven much of our communication online. We are much more accustomed to doing business using apps like WhatsApp, Discord, Zoom and Teams. They have provided a great substitute for schlepping all over the country for a face-to-face meeting. Now, few people think twice about asking to schedule a meeting through a videoconferencing platform instead of wrestling with the road or rail network in rush hour.
Of course, pre-pandemic we still had email, texting, conferencing platforms, and mobile apps, but these were more likely to be considered as lazy communication whilst face-to-face was still possible.
One casualty of the pandemic is the infamous water cooler moment: casual, accidental, personal points of contact where two or more people found themselves at the same relaxed location at the same time. These were typically where people discovered what was really going on in their organisation, and how their colleagues felt about it. They were moments of interaction between colleagues where personal details, thoughts, and feelings were shared. They were touch points of recognition, and an opportunity to demonstrate affection, interest, and shared struggles. They also provided moments of temporary relief from long periods of concentrated work.
With hybrid or fully remote practices bedding into the way we do our work, we must find ways to recreate these accidental moments, intentionally. We cant’ afford to leave it to chance because chance encounters are less likely to present themselves. Without the opportunity to bump into each in corridors or kitchens, we must deliberately create those ‘bump moments’ some other way, without interrupting, distracting, or annoying our colleagues. That’s what we mean by ‘intentional communication’.
Many of the tech-based communication platforms we use drive transactional conversations. Meetings are set up to discuss a specific business issue where information is traded and discussed, and where expectations of each other are established. But how often do we set up a ‘water cooler meeting’? We might fear that this would appear frivolous or indicate that we are slacking. It’s almost as if the water cooler moment of the past was a guilty pleasure that we don’t want to signal.
There is a misnomer about these moments, and that is that they were entirely accidental. The truth is that we manufactured them by creating a meeting place where at various points of the day the chances of encountering someone was high. They were communal spaces. We designed them as touch points. So why not do the same now, but online?
Becoming more intentional about creating opportunities for people to engage at a personal level is not only desirable, but also essential. The effects will be felt in terms of wellbeing, productivity, engagement, and team performance. Of all the things we do at work, these moments are the hardest to replicate through AI, because they are intensely human and fulfil a vital human need.
Intentional communication in a hybrid world requires dedicated online spaces and platforms that evoke sensations of safety, relaxation, and respite. Their design should be inviting, and act as a stimulus for meaningful sharing, learning, and relationship-building. So maybe not Teams or Zoom which have become synonymous with a different type of communication. And that presents a challenge for HR and those involved in shaping positive work cultures: to find a vehicle that can meet this need. Our Muster toolkit is part of the solution and will continue to evolve to address this lasting need.