‘Face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office.’ Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi and Greg Lindsay say in a recent HBR feature. You may have previously considered that interactions and chatting in the workplace are to be discouraged as it results in less time spent working. However, new research in fact demonstrates the influence of chance encounters and unplanned interactions with knowledgeable workers on improving productivity levels.
The findings collected by Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi and Greg Lindsay involved creating spaces to increase collisions and encounters in the workplace and using sensors to measure how employees were talking to one another, how they spent their time and how they moved around the office. A specific experiment tracked how long it took employees in an IT firm to configure servers and used sensors to measure the interactions. The employees’ pay was dependent on how quickly it took them to complete the tasks. The results highlighted that there were specific people, referenced as ‘informal experts’, who most people spoke to and who helped them during the task. After speaking to these informal experts, they then went on to complete a task in a third of the normal time! Outstandingly, the ability to speak to them saved the company 265 hours of work.
But what is so important to note from this research? The informal experts that most people spoke to, completed tasks in a standard length of time and were in turn paid less than those they helped! The way this experiment was set up then resulted in ‘those who brought the most value — the informal experts — were penalized with lower pay for helping the team perform better.’ Unfortunately due to individual incentives, we end up focusing on ourselves and our own productivity, rather than viewing the bigger team picture.
It is time to base incentives on group targets and encourage collaboration and sharing of information to reach goals. You should be coupling this with recognising those who regularly help and contribute to others’ success. Take a closer look at successes and how these have been accomplished. Make team meetings and group discussions on ideas and projects an item of priority. Encourage interactions between employees throughout the working day and as Ben Waber rightly says ‘Socializing at work shouldn’t just be acceptable, it should be expected.’ – after all, we work in companies and in teams because we cannot do everything on our own.
So next time you think about scrutinising an employee for chatting in the workplace, remember that chance encounters such as this will help boost their productivity.