There are a few things people should consider when communicating with one another in a work environment. These come in handy in other parts of life as well, but here we want to focus on how to best communicate with colleagues and managers.
- First, I would like to point out some general rules that apply, whether you are in an office together, or working from home.
- Listen, really listen, to what others have to say
- Think before you speak – try to avoid blurting out the first thought that comes to your mind
- Be mindful of the state somebody is in – they might not be going through the same emotions you are
- Try to be sensitive to different cultures, religions, political directions, and tastes; avoid offending someone unintentionally
Now I want to dig deeper into communication tips for an office setting. In an office where people share space, they also share sounds.
That means you can’t have the quiet of a single room, although many people need quiet, at least for some part of the day, to be able to concentrate. At the same time, others need to talk to somebody else in the same office or be on the phone. Offices try to minimize the effect of sound by using carpets, cubicles, padded dividers, etc. but people need to play their part as well; they need to be mindful of others by taking longer calls in a separate room, lowering their voices when talking, limiting private chats to such spaces as the kitchen nook or around the water cooler. Imagine having to try to work on a difficult task while your colleagues discuss their latest cooking experiences at the table next to yours!
Sounds also include music or the radio.
Be aware that you are sharing space with others who might not appreciate the latest pop hits or the news. I had a colleague who listened to music over headphones. In general, my experience shows that it is frowned upon to listen to something while working. Why is that? Maybe because by having headphones on, especially noise-cancelling ones, people cut themselves off from the environment.
On the other hand, it might be the only way to block out distracting chatter and sounds around you.
I have often heard the radio playing in the background in the offices of secretaries, fine by me if they can concentrate on their work. They did have their rooms, so they were at least not bothering anybody else. The important thing is: do not disturb anyone else with your music, and check with the company guidelines if it is accepted.
At The Cecily Group, we are currently all working from home, but some of us use headphones there as well to make sure outside noises and disturbances do not cut off a train of thought. Certain tasks, such as programming, require concentration. In the future, when we at The Cecily Group share office space, headphones will be allowed.
Getting Started With the Day
People in an office have different styles of getting started with the day. Allow people to arrive not only physically, but also mentally, and give them time to settle. I am a morning person, and in previous offices, I was often the first one in. This means by the time others arrived, I was already in ‘work mode’, had my morning beverage of choice ready, and had gone through new emails. When colleagues arrived, I needed to give them time to get into the same mode as well before being able to discuss new projects or issues that I had read into already. So be sensitive to arrival time differences.
Read the Atmosphere
Directly translated from the Japanese ‘kuuki wo yomu’ saying, it means ‘read the air’. This means when you enter a room, be it a shared office space or a meeting room, or even the canteen, you first need to take stock of what is going on. Are people chatty or silent? Are they standing together, or is each at their designated place? Smiles or no smiles? And so on. You do not want to blast into a room in full party mode, only to later find out that somebody experienced something tragic, and was not in a happy-go-lucky state of mind.
The Right Timing
Next, let’s have a look at getting in touch with a colleague, and the right timing. People being at their desks does not automatically mean that they are available for a chat, discussion, new task, or any kind of contact. People can easily see when somebody is on the phone, and know that they are busy. But if somebody works on a task that requires concentration for some time, how do others know that they should not interrupt? An easy solution is a visual sign. I saw a colleague take out a vase with a big artificial spider sitting on it and place it on his desk for everyone to see. Whoever entered his office and saw the spider knew to come back later. This can also be used virtually, by adding a specific emoji or even words like ‘Busy – do not disturb’ in Skype or Slack to indicate that now is not the time to interrupt.
Michael Hyatt (based on Dan Sullivan) distinguishes three different times when we work: frontstage, backstage and offstage time. The most valuable time for a company is the frontstage time where we focus on tasks, solve issues, and require deep focus. If possible, there should be no interruptions, which brings us back to the artificial spider as a sign that a person is in deep focus mode. During the backstage time, we focus on less important work that still needs to get done like filing, cleaning up email inboxes, etc. during which an interruption is not an issue – the spider vase goes back into its cupboard.
What about shared offices? Is it a good idea or not? It depends not only on the personalities sharing the space but on the work they do. Being in one space, say a lab e.g., bouncing ideas off one another can result in a dynamic effect. Or people sit in their cubicles or even soundproof rooms, but the narrow hallways connecting them start serving as highly effective hubs for information sharing while walking from A to B. In that case, people do not actively seek out a meeting room to discuss a topic, but they sort of accidentally talk to one another on the way to say, getting a coffee. More spontaneous encounters happen in the narrow hallways.
A company should make sure that all relevant information is shared with everyone equally. There are different means to accomplish this, e.g, through bulletin boards, emails, memos, posts on the internal website, companywide presentations, or sharing with department heads who then distribute the information further. One interesting way to share goals was used by The City Bin Co.: they published their quarterly goals May-July 2013 in the form of a magazine, using Men’s Health as a template and playing off it, complete with David Beckham on the cover.
A lot of information is shared informally between co-workers. Rumors are the fastest information to float around. Be aware of information sharing; in an office space, even the walls have ears. So unofficial information—or worse, private information—should only be shared in confined spaces, not next to the cubicles of co-workers. Just because they are not looking at you does not mean they aren’t listening to you.
If a manager needs to be informed about upcoming strategy decisions, discuss personal matters of their employees, or have a personal call with an employee, they should retreat to a meeting room where they can be alone.
At The Cecily Group, we are working on The Entrepreneurial Tool which will contain a dashboard at its core. The dashboard will be accessible to all and will contain goals. Goals show what we want to achieve in a specific time frame (this year, in the next three years, in the next 25 years) and it will also show the progress of the goals. Within the dashboard, employees can trace which company efforts their personal goals are moving towards. Some tasks might be more abstract than others, but by using the dashboard, it will always be possible to create a connection between your work to the company’s goals.
What About the Time After the Pandemic, When We Shift From Distance Work to Office Presence? Has the way we treat each other changed while we were working from home? Will we work together the same way we did before, or has something shifted? At home, you have your own space, you have your own time, and you might even be able to choose when you want to work apart from when your presence is required at a meeting. So has your mindset changed drastically? When we join a shared space again, we need to bring mindfulness of others and courtesy towards others and their space back to the table.
Some of us will be happy to go back to the office, while others will not. While some look forward to being around people again, others might have realized that they thrive more in a home office environment, now that they have experienced it. It could be related to different personalities, but also to the kind of work you do. Be mindful, especially as a manager of people, that being back from more than a year of lockdown can come with bumps in the road.
Now for Some Additional Specific Tips for Working From a Distance. Not being physically present in the same room makes it difficult to read the moods of others. My tip is: do not assume anything. Just because the weekend is coming, do not assume that everyone is in the same happy mindset as you are. If you cannot read the mood of people you are in a virtual meeting with, or if you don’t know them all that well, my solution is to keep it simple and professional, especially in chats.
One way to attempt to read the room, especially with people you are familiar with, is to start calls with a bit of small talk to see where everyone is. If the usually chatty one is monotone or even silent, you could assume that something is wrong and try to tone down your happy part a bit.
Keep written communication professional. Anything that is written down and sent can be re-read and forwarded over and over again and can also be misunderstood over and over again.
At The Cecily Group, we have weekly calls with all employees to share what is currently going on with everyone, what projects are active, and how everyone is doing. Those calls make sure everyone is on the same page and assure that information relevant to everyone is evenly distributed. But more importantly, the calls start with a positive focus. We talk about our weekends, we share stories and experiences. It gives the whole call a positive start, which can be felt—and achieves a positive focus for all.
We generally keep a positive vibe going through our work. In the long run, people are more productive when surrounded by positive energy. Positivity is infectious in the sense that if you want to be successful, you need to surround yourself with successful people; it is one of these self-fulfilling prophecies.
We also keep all relevant, company-wide information available for everyone in the company to see, to assure that progress in projects can be checked at any time, and we make sure that boards with that information can be consulted by all. We are working on developing a tool, The Entrepreneurial Tool, that will make this information-sharing even more cohesive.
What we avoid at The Cecily Group is to have our work email stored on our mobile phones. One reason is that there is a risk of stolen information, should the phone be lost. The other much more important reason is that by not being able to access our work email 24/7, we are given time to set boundaries when we work and to allow for digital detox time. The emails have to wait until we log on again on our laptops. Of course, we can be reached via phone (not email) in urgent cases, but so far, the world has not stopped spinning if we answer an email the next day.
- Sharing space requires you to be more mindful of sounds
- Give people time to arrive mentally in the office
- Read a room before you start interactions with others
- Make sure your colleague is available and not busy with something else before engaging with them
- Share information the proper way
- Be more attentive when offices open up again – things might have changed