The Lost Art of Hallway Conversations

Hallway Conversations
Hallway Conversations

The work from home trend has taken off. According to CNN Money, the number of people telecommuting has increased 115% in the last decade.

A number of indicators show that that will only increase. Organizations have moved on from the trust issue and realized just how much hosting a worker on their own real estate costs.

Additionally, the nature of many jobs doesn’t require people to be face to face for many – if any – of their responsibilities. I worked in a large corporate environment just last year. It was on a campus of about a dozen buildings. When we scheduled meetings, we would usually include a call in number for any remote folks. Invariably, we would get one or two people in a large conference room, with everyone else calling in. Some worked at home. Some were in the next building and didn’t want to walk over. Some were seated adjacent to the conference room but simply wanted to multi-task at their desk.

As collaboration technologies such as WebEx, Skype for Business, Slack, and so many other tools become common, it becomes less compulsory for everyone to be together physically.

There are many arguments that support the telecommuting trend. The biggest one for me has been reducing commute time. Living in the Chicago suburbs and commuting by train to the city takes me over ninety minutes. By the time if drive and park at the train station, take the train to the city and walk to the office, I could have completed a lot of work. Especially considering I have to do that all over again on the way home.

Meeting in person takes a fair share of overhead. It takes time to walk to the conference room, which is sometimes on another floor or in another building on a corporate campus. You sometimes need a ten-minute lead time just to get to a meeting. You then need the ten minutes after the meeting to return to your desk.

There is also the issue of a constant stream of interruptions when you work in the group setting of an office. Especially as organizations have gone to open area team rooms, it’s just too easy for people to make eye contact and interrupt. The open area is designed to promote collaboration. Some people haven’t figured out the open area etiquette of respecting peoples’ privacy, even when there is very little of it.

Hallway conversations

Some of those interruptions on the other hand, can help to make people more productive. In today’s business world, it’s not uncommon to have trouble getting hold of people. Yes, with all of this collaboration software, people can still be evasive.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of being double (and triple) booked in meetings. Other times, they may be avoiding giving you bad news.

Nevertheless, when you’re in the office and on your way to a meeting – or the restroom – and you happen to run into that person, you can in essence, corner them and ask them that question you’ve been trying to ask.

In other times, those hallway conversations turn out to be the best part of the day. For example, a few weeks ago I was getting coffee in the break room and I ran into a key individual in our company.

We discussed a new account I was working on and he knew one of the executives there. He went on to tell me that that executive has some personal quirks. He gave me some specific tips on how and when to communicate with him.

As it turned out, I’ve been able to develop an excellent rapport with this client that I might not have.  I owe it all to a hallway conversation while I was getting a cup of coffee.

Sometimes there are ways to pseudo-replicate the hallway conversation with technology. Slack is a collaboration tool. Depending on how the organization uses it, it can have a bit of a Twitter feel. You can develop communities (channels) for just about any type of topic. In the right culture, your team may begin to randomly chat. This can lead to the type of conversation that I walked into in the break room.

When you meet as a rule by Skype or WebEx, conversations can strike up while you’re waiting for others to join. It may be about how someone’s weekend was, but it could also be about a new client. Chatter like that, or some other point during the meeting may prompt someone to ping another team member after the meeting, as though they’re talking on their way back from the meeting. But it requires the explicit act of the ping.

A hybrid approach to telecommuting

The approach I’ve seen that works the best is to have a mix of remote and on-premises work. The organization can save a lot on real estate by having a much smaller physical footprint. Instead of offices and cubicle bullpens, they offer open work areas. The desks are offered first-come-first-served.

Workers can come in once or twice a week to interact with coworkers, get a few cups of company-subsidized coffee, and have random hallway conversations. The other days, they can be more productive and work from home without – or with fewer – interruptions.

Conclusion

Automation and collaboration software is making it easier for people to be productive no matter where they work. In many cases, it makes them more productive.

But one of the biggest advantages to working in an office environment is the chance meetings that result in great ideas or just provide critical information that you may not have otherwise heard.

While new technologies have enabled more ad hoc interaction, there is no replacement for honest to goodness face-to-face interactions. It may be best to get the best of both worlds. Work from home on a frequent basis. You save commute time and can usually be more productive.

But mix that up with an occasional day in the office. An additional environment can make you more creative. And you never know what kind of informational nuggets you can pick up at the office.

What information have gained from hallway conversations?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of surasakiStock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

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