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Longing for the Days of Hallway Conversations

on August 10, 2020
Blog Employee Engagement

I miss hallway conversations. This has been a recurring theme that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. While no one has actually said, “I miss hallway conversations,” they have said things like:

  • I had no idea that was happening.
  • What is this request I just got in an email? Do you know anything about this?
  • What? Wait a minute, I’m working on something just like that.

Relatable?

As we’re all navigating this strange new world, where many of us are working from home and those who are in the office are maintaining a safe “social distance,” the importance and value of those hallway conversations, catch-ups over lunch, or drive-bys at the coffee machine are becoming so much more obvious.

I pride myself on being what Gallup calls an “Arranger.” I’m able to take a bunch of information and organize it to figure out how the pieces and resources can be arranged for maximum productivity. (Gallup’s words, not mine). That doesn’t come easily for others. But this capability is highly dependent on being given those pieces and parts. So, whether you’re good at arranging or not, none of us can be successful if we aren’t getting the information we need to connect the dots.

The Value of the Hallway Conversation

“What’s up? How are things? What is your team working on? Oh, did you hear about that project so-and-so is doing? My team just got asked to do this new project, but I’m still trying to figure out how we’re going to pull it together.”

Any one of these questions can open the door to a treasure trove of information and insights. How your colleague is feeling. What’s important to them right now. And of course, they might actually know something different about the project your team has been tasked with, because their team is working on something tangential, yet connected.

As head of marketing, I work closely with the head of sales enablement, and not only do we collaborate on projects frequently, but our desks are also next to each other. When I’m puzzling things out, my first step is to swivel around in my desk chair and ask him if he knows anything about the project or has more context on an “ask” I was emailed about. (Oh, those joyful days of in-person interactions!) And usually he does, mainly due to his very active office ping-pong game interactions (another type of hallway conversation).

The New Virtual Hallway Conversation

In this new COVID world, I can’t tell you the number of times I wished I could just swivel around in my chair. Connecting the dots has had to become much more deliberate both for me and for the marketing team. In the past, the team sat in the same area. We have an open floor plan, so it was very easy to overhear a conversation and say, hey – I know something about that. Today, that looks like a bi-weekly 30-minute online meeting to give updates on different projects. I’m 100% sure that we’re still not fully connecting dots because on those calls we’re likely only focusing on a current project or something that happened that day. It’s better than nothing, but there’s still opportunity for me to improve ways to connect the dots.

For me personally, the new hallway conversation looks like this:

  • I get a random email from someone who says, “Hey, I was asked to send you this thing.”
  • Me: “Great, thanks for looping marketing in. What is this thing?”
  • Email sender: “It’s for this project this senior leader asked us to work on. Here’s my part.”
  • Me: Go outside for a walk, bring my cell phone, dial my colleague who used to sit next to me back in the pre-COVID days. “Hey, I got this email, do you know anything about this?”
  • Colleague: “I heard something about this project a few weeks ago. I got something like it from our other colleague, but it was for a different part of the project.”
  • Me: “Okay, that helps some. I’m calling Gary (our boss). I’ll come back when I know more.”
  • Me: Dialing the phone, while walking and talking (but not chewing gum). “Gary, what is this thing and do you know anything about it?”
  • Gary: “I heard something about it, but I thought it was only three projects. We need to get people together.”
  • Me: “I’ll set up a meeting with you, me, colleague, and two other colleagues.”
  • We all get together, sort out all of the dots, connect them together, and determine where marketing and sales enablement need to support, and we’re off to the races.

All Points Lead to a Deliberate and Purposeful Communication

As evidenced by the above scenario, even a company like Root that is fantastic at communicating and keeping people in the loop (this is our business, after all) is challenged right now. Everyone must find new ways to deliberately keep the dots connected, the loops closed, provide the big picture, or put two and two together – whatever metaphor you want to apply here. As leaders of organizations, functions, or teams, it’s critical to your performance, your team’s emotional health, and your own sanity to make sure you’re not overlooking the importance of the new virtual hallway conversation.

We’ve Got the Tips!

What approaches can you start to take? Here are a few ideas. I’m sure you have others, and I’d love to hear them.

  • Set up regular connects. They can be just 15 minutes with your team every other day, and they don’t have to be a heavy lift. Plus, you should already be connecting with your direct reports on the regular. Don’t forget to turn on video cameras occasionally if you’re not face-to-face.
  • IM. Call. Cookie bouquets. Whatever your jam, take time each week to reach out to those people you used to run into in the hallway to ask how they and their family are doing. I mean those people you don’t typically work with or interact with in meetings. Like Corey in accounting or Jamie in marketing or Tamara in engineering.
  • Get outside. There’s nothing to say you can’t gather a few of your colleagues at a park and go for a walk and catch up (even better than that stale hallway air). My team meets once a month or so for lunch in the park in front of our office building. We bring our lawn chairs, spread them six feet apart, and just shoot the breeze while we consume our takeout meals. Not required, just those who are comfortable hanging out.
  • Sewing circles. Back in the day, ladies got together to catch up on each other’s lives and share the local gossip while they pieced together quilts. Create your own modern-day sewing circle. Bring together a group that doesn’t normally meet to enjoy virtual cocktails or lunch in the park (see tip 3) and ask what’s happening with everyone, what they’re working on, or where they might need help. You get the picture (and it’s a lot less work than creating a quilt).
  • Overshare, overshare, overshare. People always perform better when they can see the big picture and have all the information. Even if it doesn’t pertain to their day-to-day tasks, you might be surprised at the connections they’re able to make that you weren’t even aware of.

At Root, we’re huge fans of using visuals, metaphors, dialogue, and meaningful discussion to create connections and help paint that big picture for people. It’s proven to work. Those old hallway conversations were never one-way tells – your new virtual hallway conversations shouldn’t be either.

This is a tough time for everyone, even if your organization’s performance is still strong. Making everyone’s life a little easier by giving them all of the pieces could be the lifeline they need.

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