Whether your team is heading back to the office, will continue working remotely, or somewhere between, silence and space are critical leadership gifts to give your team.
Mixed Feelings about Going Back
Over the past month, as more U.S. citizens have access to vaccines, we’ve been talking with people whose teams have worked remotely about their thoughts on returning to in-person work. Conversations about going back to the office have included a wide range of feelings. Some are eager for the stimulation and energy of being around other people. Others are not. People who aren’t as excited about returning to fixed times and locations cite several concerns. Besides the benefits of flexibility, working across geography, and the ability to care for loved ones and life interests, at the top of the objection list is concern over lost personal productivity.
- One team member said, “With no commute and without physical interruptions from other people, I’m getting way more done.”
- Another person I spoke with said, “My manager was all about us working remotely until he realized that he’s an extrovert and now had no one to talk to. Now’s he’s been upfront that he wants us back in the office because he needs to talk. But that kills my productivity.”
- One senior leader we spoke with talked about how, despite her preference for extroversion, she has enjoyed the fact that people aren’t interrupting her with “Just one thing real quick …” She worries that when they return to the office, her colleagues and team will abandon the productive batching communication habits they’ve developed.
There are pros and cons for every work arrangement – and they differ across industries. This isn’t an argument for any specific approach – they all have their place. But when people share a common concern about their improved ability to get things done, it’s an opportunity to build a better workplace than the one we left.
A Silent Surprise
As I’ve interviewed people and looked at data on going back to the office, the concern about time lost to talkative coworkers and bosses brought to mind a visit I made to a radio station several years ago.
Every Friday morning the most popular morning radio show in town hosted Live Audience Friday. A group of 12 people got to sit into the broadcast booth to watch the three show hosts do their thing, ask questions, and take part in on-air contests.
I’d listened to their show for years. Every morning the hosts reliably bantered for four hours, made me smile, laugh, reflect, and, a time or two, even cry. Between songs and commercials, they played games, shared trivia, commented on the events of the day, held contests, and shared observations they’d made about life and the oddities of human behavior.
The three of them had incredible chemistry. They were a joy during the years I drove my daughter to school and then drove myself to work. After years of listening to Live Audience Friday, my sister, her husband, and I decided it was our turn, so we applied to visit.
When our morning arrived, we met outside the studio in the chilly morning dark while most of the world slept, filed into the studio, and waited for the magic to happen.
The show was as enjoyable as I hoped, the hosts’ interaction with the audience was kind, fun, and uplifting. But what struck me most about watching these three create their on-air repartee – was the silence.
When the “on-air” sign lit up, they were full of energy, connected to one another, and poured energy across the airwaves into their hundreds of thousands of listeners. But when the sign went dark, they went silent. They studied notes, occasionally asked a quiet question of one another, and generally said very little.
It was the opposite of what I’d expected. My impression as a listener was that what we heard on our radios was the on-air continuation of an ongoing conversation. That somehow we’d just been allowed to listen in.
In hindsight, that sense of connection and the ongoing conversation resulted from the hosts’ craft and professionalism. They were good at what they did. They included those moments of silence where they gathered their energy, reviewed the content they’d prepared, and did the work to deliver a best-in-class show.
Because of the pandemic, Karin and I shifted our in-person delivery to 100% to live remote leadership training. Some days feature five or six hours on camera engaging leaders around the world in human-centered leadership practices and skills.
Over the many months of pandemic-enforced remote programs, I’ve thought of those radio hosts’ moments of silence many times. When we turn off our camera for a breakout session or pause between programs, Karin and I study our notes, return emails, and exchange a quiet question or two.
Silence can be craft and professionalism.
Bring the Gift of Space and Silence Back to the Office
I’ve read comments from a (thankfully) few cynical executives who say that people’s productivity concerns are packaging for the other benefits of working remotely.
I don’t think that’s true.
We’ve seen too many statistics citing the increased productivity over the past 15 months. It feels good to do well, and it makes sense that people don’t want to lose that.
If your work truly requires co-location, you can still give people the gift of productivity they’ve enjoyed over the past year with silence and space. Here are six ways to bring the gift of silence and space back to the office:
1. Don’t hold meetings for you.
Hold meetings only when they are the most productive use of time for the attendees (eg: to solve a problem or develop their abilities). Otherwise, leverage the communication infrastructure you’ve built over the past year.
2. Audit what you’ve eliminated.
You and your team have had to do things differently. What did you stop doing that doesn’t need to come back? It will be easy to fall back into location-based habits, but you don’t have to. Work with your team to keep unproductive habits you retired from popping up again.
3. Consolidate communication.
The benefit of co-location can quickly become its bane if people fall back into the habit of interrupting one another for minor items. Once again, you can leverage the communication platforms. Help the team commit to batching discussion items so everyone has the best chance to do their best work.
4. Practice the pause.
As I’ve watched meetings happen over Teams, Zoom, Chime, and Skype, I’ve noticed how people became more comfortable with a pause. A pause while someone reaches to unmute. A pause to ensure they’re not speaking over a colleague. Technology forced us to pause. We can bring that pause into our conversations and meetings. Give a question room to breathe. Don’t rush to fill the silence.
5. Consider quiet hours.
Some organizations we’ve worked with introduced this practice even pre-pandemic. Carve out 90-120 minutes once or twice a day dedicated to deep work. Interruptions may only happen for emergencies (and define an emergency). Leverage the communication platforms you’ve used over the past 15 months to facilitate and protect these windows.
6. Communicate about quiet and communication.
The most effective hybrid and virtual teams take time to talk about how they work together. This practice is vital for in-person teams as well. Creating shared expectations and understanding will help everyone’s productivity. You can use the prior items on this list as starting points for your discussion.
By David Dye