Communicating Beyond the Bubble

23 Nov, 2021
by Rosa Riera

Rosa Riera’s diverse career has gained her experience in a variety of roles around the world. In this seventh Screenshot, she reflects that keeping separate teams communicating with each other is a key challenge in the age of flexible work

My career has taken me along the intersections of communications, marketing, branding, and HR. It has also placed me in different countries, and at different corporate levels, from global headquarters down to individual business units. But wherever I was, one thing remained constant: the problem when things didn’t work out quite as well as expected was always “them,” the other team.

When I was located at headquarters, it was the region and the business units that didn’t deliver. When I worked in a region, it was the business units and headquarters that were clueless. And when I was at a business unit, all the levels above us took the blame.

When I worked in communications, my HR colleagues seemed to always have a reason why we could not do stuff. But then I changed to HR and found that it was the communications people who vetoed everything fun.

The problem always lay where I wasn’t. And, as it turns out, the problem never seems to lie where one is; It always lies out there, with other people. And the data confirms this: employee surveys at my company showed that colleagues across the board were happy within their own teams but lamented the lack of collaboration with other teams. Everyone was happy within their own bubble but found it hard to gel with other bubbles.

The cause for this may stem from the way we communicate and collaborate with people who are not in our immediate team.

The closer we are to our colleagues, the more we communicate directly, and the richer the communication channels we use, namely in person, per phone, and per video chat. This synchronous communication, common within groups where close collaboration is required, is important for establishing trust and rapport. It strengthens our immediate bubble.

The more distant we are from our colleagues, the more we use asynchronous forms of communication. This sees us relying much more on email, messaging services, and the like to communicate with those outside of our bubble. These mediums are very effective for transmitting information. However, they can be terrible when it comes to clarifying the meaning of information or placing it in context since there is no immediate, face-to-face feedback to signal the need for further input.

A company that has done some interesting research in this area is Microsoft.

Like most companies, Microsoft switched to remote-only during the pandemic. But unlike most, it used this unique situation to conduct a study on the effects of this switch on company-wide collaboration among its 61,000 employees in the United States. The results, published in September 2021, are eye-opening: while in the first half of 2020 collaboration and communication rose within small work groups, cross-group collaboration decreased by around 25% compared to pre-lockdown, with the bubbles inside the company becoming ever the more isolated. According to the study, “The shift to firm-wide remote work caused employees to spend a greater share of their collaboration time with their stronger ties … and a smaller share of their time with weak ties.” The researchers found that the use of asynchronous communication media like email and IM rose, while richer, synchronous communication channels like voice and video were used less.

To me this points to an area in which companies looking to continue to offer flexible work arrangements even after the pandemic need to invest a lot of attention, and that is the chasms between small working groups.

In the physical office, these chasms can be bridged, as the cliché goes, with chance encounters at the photocopier and over gossip at the water cooler. But with the move to remote-only, and the added impact of this move on our readiness to communicate directly with those outside our bubble, these chasms are getting wider. This could have a negative effect on the ability of the company to generate the best ideas and on its employees’ readiness to identify with the company. Addressing this issue is going to be one of the major corporate management tasks of the coming years. The experience that companies gained from their diversity and inclusion efforts may help here, too. Diversity, as the saying goes, is like being invited to the party, while inclusion is being asked to dance. In the present context, we can think of being offered remote working options like being invited to the party. But for true flexible work to take hold, companies are going to have to work out how to get their remote workers to dance together.

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