March 27, 2009

Can a magic chair solve your workplace problems?

I can’t sing my “listen to your staff” song any louder if I tried, so lucky for me someone else has joined in. I’ve always said that it doesn’t really matter what method you choose to listen to your staff so long as you just make sure you do it!

A communications worker in a Fortune 500 company is changing the way it communicates with employees and customers…simply by using a chair. Her idea came up against opposition at first, but she eventually won over management. So she trotted off to the middle of the corporate campus dragging along two chairs. She put up a sign that had a topic for the day on it, then sat and waited. Soon people starting sitting to talk. She now has lines form as people wait their turn to have a say. You can read about this initiative in more detail here.

The reason this case is so interesting is because it could be considered old fashioned – two people, two chairs and pure communication. No intranets or technology or fancy forms. I have written many pieces about how our workplaces need to be modernized, move with the times and continually learn and embrace new technologies. But there are some things that need to stay ‘real’ and ‘pure’. The problem with communication was not that it got swept away with new technology and lost, but that it just stopped happening – bosses forgot they had ears and how to use them.

Another example of plain and simple talking to staff is the team building day. Some people cringe when they hear that term – they brace themselves for wearing blindfolds and falling back into the arms of team mates. They need to no longer because simple ‘talking team days’ can have a much bigger impact. Staff will probably prepare themselves for being talked at about what they should be focusing on and what they need to achieve. But as a staff member explains in this blog post senior managers talking openly and honestly to employees made a normally cringe worthy day an eye opening one instead.

It can be concluded that there is no need for fancy team days - just talk instead! Communication is so important to culture and business success. Unluckily for it though, it can sometimes wear the blame for things it shouldn’t. “It’s a communication problem” can cover a multitude of sins. Often with probing it turns out it wasn’t a communication problem at all. Make sure if you label something a communication problem, it really is. Probe a bit deeper and you should receive clarity about where the real problem lies.

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