This month, we’re exploring the importance of effective communication in leadership. Today, we take a step off the beaten path and examine side chats, those informal conversations that happen in the hallways, at the watercooler, or through instant messaging.
Before I started working from home, I held a position of power and influence when it came to the information superhighway that is impromptu conversation between co-workers.
My desk sat in a three-person bullpen we called the “north studio,” equidistant from the bathroom, the backdoor to our offices, and the in-office conference room, where members of the team regularly hosted colleagues from across campus. Plus, I have one of those faces that screams, “Come, tell me your problems.”
No one could pass my desk without chatting. Whether they were heading out to their cars in the parking lot or slipping in a little late after lunch, they’d linger just a bit for a few minutes of small talk over my monitor. I often wondered if they felt they owed me some sort of unofficial toll for passing through my general workspace, like a family making its way from Pittsburgh to Philly on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Of course, it’s not like I discouraged them. Between the festive holiday lights hanging from my desk from October to January, the team “win jar” and community magnetic poetry board in the corner, and my bone-deep need to be the go-to department know-it-all, I inadvertently made myself the hub of office side chats.
On one hand, this was great. I developed fantastic rapport with everyone from VPs and visiting board members to the guy who delivered our watercooler water. Impromptu brainstorming sessions and creative problem-solving happened on the regular. I grew into a more effective team member and became adept at anticipating challenges and obstacles as a result of hearing my co-workers’ frustrations when they vented. And the workday was frequently interspersed with conversation about the latest episode of Project Runway, the plight of the Mariners or Seahawks, or (with one team member, in particular) the existential ruminations that result from rereading Walt Whitman.
On the other hand, it’s a wonder I ever got any work done. A few minutes at my desk after a meeting was just that for the other person: a few minutes. But when you stack up several of those “few minutes,” you get an hour. Thank goodness the microwave was upstairs. As it was, if someone from the south studio perched at the foot of the steps after heating up their turkey meatloaf mini muffins, their lunch break often turned into my 30-minute distraction. Can you imagine what would have happened if every hungry person in the building had to pass my desk to reheat their leftovers?
All this changed drastically when I began remote work. And yet, much of it didn’t change at all.
Like many around the world who suddenly found themselves working from home at the beginning of the pandemic, I missed the camaraderie of in-person activity. The updates about colleagues’ kids, the Monday-morning quarterbacking about that last email campaign, the veiled eyerolls during our director’s PowerPoints. This was the glue that held us together. If the shared experience of spending eight hours a day in a handful of connected rooms wasn’t enough to bond us, the meaningful looks during meetings, whispered conversations at the copy machine, and deep dives into Leaves of Grass certainly were.
With each of us isolated at home, how would we cultivate that bond?
I needn’t have worried. Remote work, though new to me, wasn’t new, and there was already a slew of tools to keep co-workers in different locations connected. Between Slack, Zoom, texting, comments in Asana, and email, I nearly felt even more available working remotely than I had actually been working in person.
As the pandemic wore on and we all got more comfortable communicating in this manner, I noticed an unexpected shift: Side chats were happening more frequently than they ever had in the office, and I wasn’t the only one for whom a few minutes after a meeting was stacking up. With the ability to mute ourselves and go off camera during meetings and with many employees using more than one monitor in their home-office setups, it became easier and easier to hold a full-on private conversation in the midst of a conference call or tackle my to-do list during a presentation. And no one was the wiser.
Except, they were the wiser, because I wasn’t just holding one side chat during the call, I was holding several: one with my former studio mate about how hard it was going to be to implement the website changes the call was about, one with a colleague in a different department about edits to an email she needed to send, one to another co-worker lamenting how long the call was taking, and one to my boss because I kept finding Game of Thrones memes that perfectly described each person on our team.
And I was willing to bet that each person in my side chats was holding multiple side chats of their own.
Before long, I felt like my side chats about work were work, and I was no longer responsible only for the projects in my portfolio, but for maintaining dozens of threads, commentaries, and ongoing conversations—some related to work and some not. My distractions increased. My interruptions increased. My stress increased. What was meant to mimic the spontaneous, fun, and constructive ways of staying connected had become a car wreck of communicating.
Making Side Chats Work
Whether you manage a handful of people, oversee a division, or are the CEO of a large organization, you have to learn how to navigate the intricate web of conversations happening within your team. Leaders acknowledge that side chats are a natural, effective, and (mostly) healthy means of communicating; good leaders ensure that they contribute positively to team dynamics and team members’ well-being and productivity. The path to making side chats work involves a few key strategies:
Encourage openness and inclusivity.
By their very nature, side chats are exclusive and run the risk of inadvertently creating cliques or inspiring FOMO. Combat this by having an open-door policy. Encourage team members to voice their thoughts and join the conversation—in person or online. Invite questions and embrace respectful dissent and debate. Make it clear that you value diverse perspectives and want to hear from everyone.
Set clear boundaries and expectations.
Open communication is vital, but they’re called “side” chats for a reason. Work with your team to establish guidelines for using messaging platforms and collaboration tools. Define the purpose for each channel, such as using Slack or Teams for brainstorming and more formal channels, like email or meetings, for sharing information and decision-making. Lay down some ground rules around basic messaging etiquette in shared spaces, like limiting the use of profanity and avoiding video cold calls.
Cultivate a culture of respect.
Respect is the cornerstone of healthy side chats. Of all effective communication, really. Remind your team of the importance of respectful communication and common courtesy, whether in person or digitally. Encourage active listening and empathy, and make the effort to ensure that everyone feels heard and valued.
Lead by example.
Your behavior as a leader sets the tone for your team. When you participate in side chats, you demonstrate their value and model their effectiveness. Reenforce your open-door policy and meet your team members where they are. And don’t be afraid to share your personality. Allowing your team to see a more casual, playful side and get to know you will inspire confidence and build trust.
Opt out when needed.
It’s OK to be unavailable sometimes. The proliferation of ways we have created to ensure our availability at any given moment can feel overwhelming. Remember—and remind your team—that you don’t have to respond to everything everywhere right away. Utilize features such as “Do Not Disturb” to help limit distractions when you need to focus. Remove yourself from channels or threads when they’re no longer relevant to prevent information overload.
Review, revise, and adjust.
Team dynamics evolve over time, and what works today might not work tomorrow. Check in with your team and regularly review how side chats are impacting members’ relationships, productivity, and well-being. Be willing to adjust your approach as needed and be open to suggestions. Solicit feedback to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met.
In the end, side chats, whether in the office or during remote work, are a testament to the human need for connection and collaboration. At their best, they’re where creativity sparks, friendships flourish, and ideas become solutions. At their worst, they’re a twisted, labyrinthine network of distractions and negativity.
As leaders, our role is to guide our teams in making the most of side chats while mitigating their potential pitfalls. With the right balance, we can create an environment of informal collaboration and camaraderie that strengthens workplace bonds and sets our teams on the path to success.