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The Business Case for Conversation

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 9/11/2015 Erica Keswin


In 2011, I attended a talk by Sherry Turkle on her book, Alone Together. My hope was to get some tips on how to minimize any psychological damage I was doing to my kids, given my own addiction to technology.
As someone who truly enjoys connecting with others, I hung around after the book signing, and Sherry and I struck up a conversation. We quickly decided to continue that conversation over a cup of coffee where we discussed a variety of issues regarding the impact of technology on kids, relationships, medicine and the business world. Because of my 20 year background in organization and leadership development, human resources, and executive coaching, the issue of how technology was impacting relationships in the workplace was particularly intriguing. That conversation over coffee four years ago led to collaboration on the business section of the newly released, critically acclaimed book, Reclaiming Conversation.

When I began this exciting journey, I had a number of questions. In my daily life, at home, in restaurants, on planes, and in line at my local Starbucks, I saw people talking less, and staring at their screens more. I wondered what I would see in the workplace. Would people be talking less? Were employees texting or emailing the person in the next office? And, if so, did it matter? What were the business implications? Would less conversation have an impact on issues like employee satisfaction, retention, creativity, corporate culture- and ultimately the bottom line? I suspected this was the case, but I wanted to know for sure.

In researching Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry and I visited companies of all sizes, industries, and scopes. We talked to people at start-ups, well-established companies, on the campuses of Silicon Valley and in the halls of the well-established banks and law firms. While the companies were very different, all of them were faced with the challenge of managing the impact of technology on relationships in the workplace.
This blog is about the Business Case for Conversation. In it, I will share not only my journey as an organization and leadership development expert seeing the challenges the business community is facing, but also an analysis of what companies can do to address them.


Was I hearing this correctly? Throughout our research, again and again, I thought I needed to get my hearing checked. Did an associate just ask a partner at a well-regarded professional services firm if she could participate in a call with a client from her office, which is three doors down the hall?

During my time as an associate at Booz Allen & Hamilton, the Hay Group and Russell Reynolds Associates, you couldn't have paid me to miss these moments because I saw them as incredible opportunities--opportunities to connect with a partner face-to face and get to know him or her. After all, this was a person who would have input into my performance review and even my bonus. Such calls were a time for me to watch and learn and ask questions from an expert in the field. When a partner put the client on mute and explained the nuances of what was going on, I was all ears.

So, why did I keep hearing people ask permission to miss out on these calls? Weren't these employees ambitious, and eager to learn? One woman said she did not feel well and didn't want to get the rest of the group sick. Another claimed she was not dressed appropriately to come down to the partner's office. Most didn't even attempt to give a reason. In reality, many employees admitted that they prefer calling in so they can answer emails, multi-task, and get stuff done, which is understandable, but what is the cost?

Before companies can effectively steer their employees to see that, yes, such face-to-face interactions are important, in fact invaluable, leaders need to first see it for themselves.
This is where the Business Case for Conversation comes in.

I hear from business leaders every day who complain about the ever-increasing resistance to good old-fashioned face-time. So, what do I say? I tell them the truth. Relationships and meaningful conversation need to start at the top. This is a value that needs to be stated as part of a company's mission, and woven into corporate culture. Leaders need to "walk the walk" and "talk the talk"--literally. Leaders need to to say, "No, you cannot call into a meeting from down the hall. It's bad for your career it's and bad for business."
After all, as Harvard Business Reviewrecently reported, the economy loses nearly one trillion dollars annually to digital distractions. That's a lot of money spent on not talking to one another.
In other words, the case is clear. Relationships matter. And conversation is definitely good for the bottom line. Progressive companies are developing strategies to address this, and I have developed a model for leaders and managers at all levels to use to improve conversation and relationships in their organizations and project teams. What follows is just a taste of the case studies for each. (I will continue to add research every week. So stay tuned!)
Lead with Conversation
Strong leaders model the behaviors they want to see in their organizations. Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linked-in is famous for leaving blocks of open time on his schedule to walk around and take the pulse of the office. Weiner uses that time to get to know and coach his team and focus on the company's strategic priorities. His advice is, "Don't leave unscheduled moments to chance." In other words, leaders should proactively plan time to connect. And this will set the tone for the rest of the organization.
Cultivate Conversation
To encourage conversation, companies need to change the rules of engagement. Lisa Buckingham, Chief HRO of Lincoln Financial noticed that all meetings started five minutes late and that people were using their phones while others were presenting. This was hardly a way to get productive conversations off the ground, not to mention the fact that starting late hurts productivity and multitasking chips away at our attention and creativity. So they eliminated those behaviors. Now they start on time and people leave the room to check the phone, which invites real conversation in real time.

Design for Conversation
In addition to changes individuals can make, companies can make structural changes with conversation in mind. According to Ben Waber, President and CEO of Sociometric Solutions and author of People Analytics, the water cooler is the most important purchase a company can make because of the way informal gathering leads to innovation. According to an article in the Washington Post, architecture firm, Gensler, designed its own space to "capture their spirit of collaboration and creativity." Workers have been known to sit at a table in the lobby next to the "the Ferrari of coffee machines for informal, small-group meetings." Inside a small "huddle room" are two "cushy lounge chairs for more private or personal conversations." In other words, whenever possible, it's a good idea to have an environment that supports a company's values.

Measure Conversation

One of the best ways to change behavior is to change metrics. At Zappos, CEO, Tony Hsieh believes that relationships are critical to building a strong culture, so he famously formalized the importance of managers socializing with employees. Now managers are expected to spend 20% of their time goofing off with the employees they manage. According to a profile in Inc., Hsieh believes that, "Part of the way you build a company culture is by hanging out outside the office," so he regularly takes his employees out on the town because he thinks it sets a good example. "I just want to have a company where people can hang out together."
Disconnect from Digital Conversation
More and more companies are banking on the link between employees disconnecting, and their ability to re-engage with a refreshed thus, more productive mind and body. Smart companies are prescribing disconnection through company policies. According to an article in Inc, Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently, "made a 'no cowboys' rule and started forcing people to go home at 6 or 7 to get some sleep and live a little," which, "helped both morale and energy." Vynamic, a health care management consultancy in Philadelphia, "urges employees not to send emails on the weekend or between 10 pm and 6 am, a policy it calls zzzMail (as in catch some zzzs)." And Arianna Huffington recently rolled out an email tool to enable her employees to actually enjoy vacation.
Learning how to benefit from relationships and conversation capital, is not a one-size-fits-all technique. Depending on a company's size, scope, values and goals, leaders can pull different levers of the model presented here (and there's more to come).
The central idea of the Business Case for Conversation is to think about how leadership, cultivating connection, office design, measurement, and even disconnecting from digital life--all impact the ability to engage in meaningful (and profitable!) conversation at work.

I am very excited to begin this conversation about conversation in the workplace. Join me on this journey by sharing your thoughts and telling me about what is working or not working in your companies. I would love to hear from you! Email me at
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