REALITY BITES: Richard Reeves

In French and Spanish offices, it takes the first hour to kiss everyone, the second to discuss the latest gossip and the third to pop out for coffee.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In French and Spanish offices, it takes the first hour to kiss everyone, the second to discuss the latest gossip and the third to pop out for coffee.

In wartime, careless talk costs lives. Nowadays, it is seen as costing profits. For all the de-layering, empowering and cafe-building, there is still a prevailing view that chat is idle, that shooting the breeze is antithetical to getting a job done.

The Protestant version of the work ethic prevails, implying heads-down work, focused agendas, punctuality, efficiency. In French and Spanish offices, it takes the first hour to kiss everyone, the second to discuss the latest gossip and the third to pop out for a coffee and croissant.

In Britain, these activities would count as sexual harassment, time-wasting and absenteeism. Many firms have built cafes or break-out areas and then discovered people are too scared to use them for fear of looking work-shy.

Our resistance to chatting is short-sighted, for two reasons. First, conversations are maintenance for relationships. And relationships between people are a company's greatest asset. If they aren't working together you are essentially managing a team of gifted individuals. So the ability to hold good-quality conversations with each other - and with the outside world - is becoming a core organisational and individual skill.

On the face of it, we seem to be becoming corporate chatterboxes: half the workforce increased the amount of time spent 'dealing with other people' between 1992 and '97. And the volume of communication has grown exponentially, especially with e-mail and mobile phone technologies. Indeed, some organisations are now training staff to manage the information deluge. But much of this communication may not even be serving its basic purpose, given that so many e-mails now have to go unread. As Einstein warned: 'The major problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.'

In any case, conversation is not the same as communication. And here's the second reason why companies should be encouraging conversation. Unlike communication, it is intrinsically creative. It takes one idea, adds another and mixes them to create a third. Communication is about swapping data, while 'real conversation', as Theodore Zeldin puts it in his brilliant book Conversation, 'catches fire. It involves more than sending or receiving information. Conversation does not simply reshuffle the cards. It creates new cards.' Indeed, creativity is more often a conversational process, an engagement between people, than the activity of 'lonely geniuses'.

Conversations do not stick to agendas but roam freely across personal issues, corporate gossip and work projects. And history abounds with examples of conversations driving creativity. One of the best-known is the birth of the Post-it note. Spence Silver, a 3M researcher, had invented an adhesive that was sticky but not very sticky - leaving his immediate colleagues fairly unmoved. Then he got chatting with Art Fry, who had been puzzling for a way to mark the pages in his church hymnal (he sang in the choir) without damaging them. The rest, of course, is history.

Watson and Crick, the DNA pioneers, worked mostly via a long conversation with each other and with experts in various fields, rather than published papers in academic journals or lectures. Their golden rule needs to be taken to heart by all organizations - they were allowed to ask any question, no matter how stupid or naive it seemed. They found that the simpler the question, the more fruitful the answer.

But in current corporate culture, jargon and the appearance of expertise is all. Who actually knows what a 'paradigm' is? The language of business life often acts to kill real conversation rather than promote it: hence the bullshit bingo that helps to pass the time in soul-destroying meetings.

Organisations increasingly require not only physical, financial and human capital but also social capital - the networks and ties that bind people together. Social capital is what makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The connectivity of staff is just as important as the skills and attributes (human capital) of each of them. And social capital is generated and accumulated through conversations.

The best knowledge management systems are strong networks sustained by conversations. IT systems can help, but they can also hinder if not constructed correctly. The best ones help put people in touch with each other, rather than trying to take the place of people being in touch.

Conversations are a defence against stress and other mental health problems.

People with good social relationships at work are much less likely to be stressed or anxious. Indeed, there is a broader case here for a conversational culture. When more people are on anti-depressants than voted in the Pop Idol poll maybe, as a current Samaritans ad suggests, it's time we began listening to each other.

So it is good to talk. And it is good business too. So rather than having a coffee in the company of your e-mails, how about trying one in the company of your colleagues?

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