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Why headphones, Slack and email are bad for productivity

The importance of conversation in business

Our blog last week was a personal point of view from Josie about how our flight from face to face conversation is damaging human connections. This week we are building on this theme but looking specifically at the world of work.


The illusion of control

The modern world of work is relentlessly fast-paced. To-do lists grow faster than we can tick items off, it’s a never-ending tunnel where the promise of light at the end is forever out of reach. Feeling in control of our workload is rare and fleeting. Many of us feel overwhelmed by a lack of control over our task list.


In order to create a sense of control, we anchor ourselves to our screens. Sitting at our desks, firing out emails, typing up documents, we are able to believe that we might reach the end of the to-do list. We feel fleeting control. We are isolated but we are ticking jobs off. That feels great.


Any interruption to this little bubble of control can feel like a disaster. And so we sit, often for entire days, staring at our screen, avoiding any eye contact or small talk with colleagues around us as we simply want to work through our list of tasks and maintain some semblance of control.


Yet by working in this way, we miss out on so much. We do damage to our mental wellbeing; humans are social creatures and we thrive through human connection. We miss out on so much wisdom and energy that radiates from the colleagues around us. By isolating ourselves into our little bubbles, we increase the stress we feel as we carry the entire burden of our to-do list alone.


And we reduce our productivity. Study after study shows that conversation in business leads to higher productivity. Yet we steadfastly refuse to believe this, because the illusion of control we foster within our isolated bubbles convinces us that this is the only place where productivity can reside.

One of the largest studies in this area was by Ben Waber and colleagues from MIT. This data-led study used a ‘sociometric badge’ which measured human interactions between individuals in work. The results showed that face-to-face conversation leads to higher productivity and is also associated with reduced stress.


Waber stresses that it is hard for people to really believe that conversation is vital for productive work: “We think of productivity as...sitting in front of the computer and banging out emails, scheduling things; and that’s what makes us productive. But it’s not.” What makes you productive is “your interactions with other people….you give them new ideas, you get new ideas from them: and...if you even make 5 people a little bit more productive every day, those conversations are worth it.”


Little work exists in isolation

Most of us need to work with other people in order to get our job done. Conversation is vital in enabling a team of people to come together and be productive. And this conversation needs to be face-to-face conversation, not email conversation. We can’t build the same quality of connection through technology. Technology waters us down, crucial human emotion is lost, breathing the same air matters when building productive working relationships. New ideas emerge from in-person meetings. Email conversations, no matter how efficient, trend toward the transactional. Emails pose questions and get answers - a simple exchange of information. The loss of a face-to-face conversation means a loss of complexity and depth.


In conversation, people build trust, get information and build the connections that help them get their work done. These benefits are more prominent in the impromptu conversations that happen between colleagues rather than scheduled meeting conversations. Yet we have so many scheduled meetings in our diaries, there is little room for informal conversation. One great technique to create a space for important informal conversations is to think about a weekly breakfast. Consider your senior management beginning one day a week 45 minutes earlier and meeting for breakfast.


No agenda needed. People are simply there, available to each other, ready to let the conversation lead you to brilliance.


This often results in a reduction of scheduled meetings because many problems are solved on the spot. Just by people coming together.


A simple conversation often sorts stuff out

At work, things typically get into trouble when too much has been done by email. We hide ourselves behind our screens and choose to send multiple emails to try and fix a problem rather than simply go and talk to the other person. This is a behaviour we are all displaying more and more, but it’s especially prominent in younger generations who have grown up with electronic communication as a universal language. When they think about choosing a communication tool, they consider such things as messaging, texts, Skype, email, Slack etc. They will rarely even consider a sit-down meeting. It’s not on their menu. Yet the shared experience of people at a face to face meeting is like nothing else. It is the best way to learn how your colleague or client thinks. The more comfortable people are talking together, the more those inconsequential, everyday work issues are resolved way before they escalate into something major.


Making meetings matter

Research shows that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s.

We spend more of our time in meetings, but even in this time away from our desks, we still allow our screens to diminish human ability. Studies show that open screens in meetings degrade the performance of everyone who can see them - their owners and everyone sitting around them.


And forget the research and the studies for one moment, an open screen in a meeting boils down to simple courtesy. It’s become acceptable to sit in meetings and stop listening to each other, choosing instead to turn to our screens. No-tech meetings mean a meeting of minds, a space where people properly listen and pay attention to each other, a place where trust and respect are formed, a space where humans come together and solve problems in a way that only humans can.


People buy people

An overused statement but we all know it to be true. And yet we see the tendency to avoid face-to-face meetings now cutting across generations. Many of us avoid entertaining clients by taking them out. Clients hold back as well. Everyone prefers to send emails rather than pick up the phone or to go out for lunch. A misguided emphasis on ‘structured formality’ ahead of ‘informal human conversation’ has damaged our relationships at work and with clients.


In one law firm, they measured the impact of building real relationships; unsurprisingly, the lawyers who spent more time with clients face-to-face brought in the most business.


Seven-minute rule

We don’t live in a silent world of no talk. But we do drop in and out of the talk we have. We have little patience for talk that demands sustained attention or conversation that meanders and feels inefficient. When talk becomes difficult or when chat turns to quiet, we’ve given ourselves permission to go elsewhere.


At 4and20million, we love the idea of the seven-minute rule. This rules grows out of the observation that it takes at least 7 minutes to see how a conversation is going to unfold. So obey the rule and give conversation a chance to build. Stick with the person, let things unfold and don’t lose interest and go to your phone before those 7 minutes pass. If there is a lull in the conversation, let it be.


Conversation - like life - has silences and boring bits. But it is often in these moments when we stumble and fall silent that we reveal our real selves to each other. These are the lightbulb moments when we form the seed of an idea, where we learn something important about each other, or where our brains catch up and process.


Technology and digital communications can create an illusion of efficiency and control. They offer the promise of making conversation more efficient, more direct and therefore more productive. Through anchoring ourselves to our screens and communicating with the people around us without lifting our heads, we stay within the safety of our isolated bubble, choosing to believe that this is the only way to maintain control. Yet it’s often in the messy, unedited conversations between colleagues where the magic stuff lies.


Talking. It’s where your problems get solved, where enjoyment in work exists. And ultimately, it’s where your business can create the moments that really matter!