Where has the conversation gone?

The Boston Globe reports on how technology creates employee isolation which in turn causes work place interaction to suffer. From remote work to employees plugging into earbuds to escape open office noise (and annoying coworkers), employees are less engaged with each other at work. Fewer workplace interactions between employers result in less creativity, less productivity, and less motivation.

The solution? Design interactive spaces and create opportunities for employees to engage. One solution offered up by Humanyze, was to create a mobile coffee cart to stimulate impromptu conversations between different teams. The coffee station was strategically places between departments who worked on projects together to improve spontaneous conversation.

“If you create an environment where random people bump into each other, then every so often pretty amazing things will happen, and even more frequently, good things will happen,” said Ben Waber, chief executive of Humanyze, which analyzes workplace interactions and has seen its business quadruple in the past year. “It’s building those levels of trust so the right stuff can happen more frequently.”

This article is so timely. It’s no wonder organizations are starting to think strategically about conversation and interaction design. The decline in workplace conversation has been happening for years now. Chances are, you’ve had one of these things happen already today:

You texted or did emails during a meeting

You put in headphones to avoid a conversation with someone

You put in headphones to avoid the noise in an open office space

You emailed someone who sits near you instead of talking to them

You continued an email chain that could have been solved by picking up the phone and discussing it

You didn’t pick up the phone when someone called

You avoid a difficult conversation, instead opting to email it

You pulled out your phone during a lunch with coworkers

All of the above are conversation avoidance behaviors.

Here’s the truth: I did all of those things in my last workplace. And I watched my coworkers do similar things. None of these actions are wrong. In fact, they’re all social norms in the workplace. In my last workplace I saw opportunities for conversations – spontaneous or productive – decline on the regular. Management was constantly on their phones during meetings (despite insisting on a “no laptops during meetings” policy), including during interviews with potential employees. One of the deans was notorious for being on his phone during meetings unless it was his turn to talk at people (yes, at, not with), when he’d use his brute manners to command absolute attention for his turn. The leader of our department consistently emailed difficult news rather than having conversations in person. Everyone was so busy. Few people had time to give you their full attention for a conversation. Many people outright avoided it. I took part in conversation avoidance too. Because here’s the thing: this was normal.

I’m fascinated by the evolving social norms around communication in the workplace. I’m nearly done reading Sherry Turkle’s, Reclaiming Conversation, which is a must-read book for anyone who’s noticed how our communication habits are changing. Her book dives into the decline in conversation between people in the workplace and the impact that it has on organizations. But she goes beyond just the effect on the workplace. She examines family relationships, dating, and friendships too. She puts a spotlight on the digital communication tools we use and how it changes our relationships, often not for the better. The themes that Turkle covers in her book – less conversation between people, obsession with our phones, less connection at work between colleagues – are all familiar themes. What makes this book so perspective-shifting is the in-depth examination of the impact digital communication is having in our everyday lives. She combines ethnographic observations and hundreds of interviews with students, professionals, and families, to share perspectives that should challenge our apathy towards the negative effects of digital technology.

The book has certainly challenged my apathy. It’s also helped me better understand the experiences I have with job seekers. The job search is a persuasive act, one that requires communication and conversational skills. The interview and negotiation process are conversations. Informational interviews are conversations with (ideally) interesting people. Yet so many job seekers struggle when I tell them they can’t negotiate over email. In coaching sessions I’ve seen blank faces when I have explained how to conduct informational interviews. So many job seekers lack confidence in themselves to know what to say or how to sound interesting. They seem uncomfortable with the idea of starting conversations with strangers. Students panic at phone interviews. Now, none of these things have ever been pleasant. Job seekers have never enjoyed them. But in my conversations with job seekers so much coaching revolves around how to have conversations with people. My networking workshops have evolved now to teach people how to have a conversation: how to enter them, what to say, how to be engaging, and how to exit. It seems so basic and yet every time I do it I get loads of positive feedback. The emphasis isn’t at all on career – it’s on conversation.

The future of work belongs to those with communication skills: the soft skills that allow you to work across teams, engage with people from different backgrounds, and adapt to new situations. These skills are hard to develop if your every day communication takes place on text and email. These skills require a comfort with conversation and the ability to process unstructured, verbal communication. In her book, Turkle shares anecdotes from young professionals who struggle to have conversations because they’re unscripted. They prefer to have time to think about the answer and write a correct response. Open-ended conversations are too risky.

My copy of her book is filled with dog-eared pages. I’m talking about it so much to friends that they’re eyes start glazing over, probably in the self-awareness that they’d like to pull out their phone and check their notifications. Or maybe it’s from boredom with the subject. Or maybe it’s because we’re all little uncomfortable when someone points out the truth about phone overuse and the decline of quality conversations. But none of us talk candidly about the impacts of it. I was at a dinner recently with friends who I hadn’t been together with in ages. The conversation was lacking. I couldn’t figure out if it was a product of not being in each others lives on the regular or the decline of conversational skills due to phones. And then two friends pulled out their phones to retreat, possibly because they were bored (indeed the conversation was boring). I wish I could assign Turkle’s book to all my friends so they were at least aware of how our conversations are interrupted, changed, and impacted by phones. Now when I’m socializing with friends this book is all I can think about.

If you’re new to Turkle’s work or interested in how the role of digital technology affects the workplace and family watch her talk below.

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