Can we talk?

E-mail and phone communication have revolutionized business, but nothing beats a face-to-face conversation.

Do great ideas frequently trickle up from your junior staffers? Is it easy to get cross-departmental innovations going? How long did it take your last new hire to find the supply of blank CDs? If you answered yes, yes, and no time at all, chances are your company has a strong culture of informal, face-to-face chatting.

Much as e-mail has revolutionized office communication, it's still vital to get people out of their cubicles for spontaneous, in-person exchanges. Self-styled “corporate alchemist” Linda Naiman of Creativity at Work, in Vancouver, is hired by top companies such as AstraZeneca, BP and Placer Dome to facilitate strategic conversations. “In an environment of global competition and an increasing complexity of problems, companies must come up with new ways for people to synergize and for managers to tap into the brilliance of people,” she says. “Companies that are successful know they have to be more collaborative.”

Naiman cites Larry Prusak, former executive director of IBM's one-time Institute of Knowledge Management, in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Working Knowledge and In Good Company, as a good example of someone who gets it. You'd expect Prusak to be an advocate of electronic communications, but, in fact, he's a proponent of old-fashioned, face-to-face encounters. “His research says that knowledge isn't transmitted by reading reports,” says Naiman. “We learn from each other at the water cooler, and social networks are critical to an organization's success.”

Senior managers at Massachusetts-based Genzyme Corp. (which made a recent offer for biotech firm AnorMED Inc., based in Langley, B.C.) believe so strongly in the importance of informal interaction that they designed their new corporate headquarters to encourage it. “We surveyed employees to understand better how they worked,” says Genzyme spokesperson Bo Piela. “This reinforced that collaboration is very important to the kind of work we do, and that the physical layout of our prior headquarters was hindering it.”

On Earth Day 2004, Genzyme moved into a new building with expanses of glass, a central atrium and lots of common space, including 18 gardens. After the move, 58% of employees surveyed said they were more productive. Piela even says that CEO Henri Termeer reports he can “make more decisions in a day” because the building makes it so easy to find and talk to everyone he needs to contact.

Even without a new building, your company can get some of the same results. Here's how.

1 Encourage conversation “If you're going to create an environment for conversation and dialogue, then leaders and managers have to understand that it's important to do so,” says Naiman. “Otherwise, people will be discouraged from talking, because it will look like they're not working.”

2 Make room for casual meetings “A lot of the most creative thought comes from brainstorming, and there is more and more demand to create impromptu environments within the office where people can get together without having to schedule a meeting,” says Carol Smith, a partner and vice-president with Smith Grimley Harris (SGH) Design Partners in Toronto. For Coca-Cola, SGH created “collision areas” by rerouting corridors to force staff to meander. “We created the Think Tank–a flexible area that could be adjusted according to how groups would want to use it,” says Smith. “It was open, with meeting space, lounge space, a servery and a place to plug in laptops. It had a very casual feeling, and the furniture was quite flexible and easy to move, with flip charts, whiteboards and tack boards.”

3Create excuses to chat It's natural for people to linger and make small talk around the photocopier or the snack counter. Besides allowing for a moment of decompression, these mini-breaks can facilitate the transmission of important tidbits of knowledge. “The water-cooler principle is still in effect, and I think it's even more important today,” says Helma Gansen, retiring principal with Gansen Lindsay Design Consultants Inc., in Ottawa. “There's only so much you can cover in e-mail. Through dialogue, you often stimulate other thought processes.” Gansen Lindsay ingeniously created a gathering place for a Nepean-based client by fitting out a point, where four corridors converged, with a whiteboard, tack board and new openings into spaces already devoted to a coffee bar and the photocopy area. “A more conservative approach by clients has been creating these areas within workstation space,” says Smith. “There are a dozen different things you can do with a cubicle in very simplistic ways, whether that's a library or a banquette where people can sit and chat.”

4Give 'em something to talk about Some companies go out of their way to get employees talking. Naiman cites Progressive Insurance, the third-largest U.S. group of auto insurers, which has amassed one of the world's most important corporate art collections, with holdings of more than 6,000 pieces. “They don't just put decorative art on the wall, they like to put up provocative or conceptual art,” she says. “They want to get people talking.”

As the company's website puts it: “Progressive's corporate art department uses the art collection as a tool to spark rich dialogue about the ideas and concerns of our time, ultimately inspiring our people to risk, learn and grow.” (A less ambitious version of this strategy could take a much simpler form; like a chalkboard with a thought-provoking weekly trivia question.)

So, next time you spot staffers chatting by the elevators or passing around the Timbits, remember: They're not lollygagging; they're building networks, engendering trust relationships, disseminating knowledge, nurturing creativity and–ultimately–building up corporate value. Maybe you should even get in on the conversation.