Do you know the name of the person sitting next you?

It seems like an obvious questions with an obvious answer (“Yes”); but what if I asked you to name the person sitting across from you — still yes?

Ok, how about everyone sitting at your bank of desks, or everyone in the next bank — still yes? How about the people you walk past each day, or members of the other teams your company relies on (such as Sales, Marketing, HR and Finance), that if you’re honest you don’t know much about?

Perhaps you could name one person, your go-to for that area, but what about the rest of their team?

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule: you’re that guy or gal who knows everyone, you get the first round in after work on a Thursday and organise the trips to the bowling alley. But how much about your colleagues do you actually know?

How many kids does Tim have? What are their names?

Where does Tina live? Where is she from originally?

Does Greg have pets? Does he play sport?

Does it matter?

I would argue that it does…

I’ve been lucky enough to join (and be part of) a wide range of teams in my life in a variety of sectors. One thing stands out: “induction days” are normally rubbish. Too often I’ve been given some “documentation” to read (in order to keep me busy), spent wasted hours watching a Powerpoint that has no bearing on my role, or (even worse) spent hours with someone from HR who has no idea what I will actually be doing. I’ve rarely met more than a couple of people and even more rarely had a chance to meet anybody in a social setting.

Now compare this with another type of team that I’m part of — sports. I’ve played team sports all my life and one difference that stands out is the role of a captain. A good captain may lead on the field, potentially like a manager within an organisation. But a great captain will do all the nitty gritty work off the field, and nothing is more nitty gritty than a new player induction. He needs them to understand all the on-field tactics, formation in both offence and defence, set-piece placement, style of play, players names and positions, movement etc….. Most importantly, however, he needs them to know (and preferably like) everyone else in the team off the field. This takes a lot of time and effort. It often involves organising an event for the evening after their first game, so that they can meet everyone properly. Then spending time with them 1-on-1 to run through the questions they are bound to have about their role in their team. They will bring experience and great ideas from their previous teams that will need to be considered, filtered and integrated into future plans. Is this what your manager did when you joined your current company?

Considering I typically spend 40 hours a week at work, compared to 3 hours playing sport, why I do I know a lot more about the personal lives of my sports teammates than I do about my colleagues? In my mind it is simple: members of sports team know that getting on with their teammates off the field will help them perform better on it. For the sports team, it means running the extra mile when your friend makes a mistake. At work, it allows you to easily challenge your colleagues point of view and make better decisions together. Now you may be thinking: this is true of my workplace! If so, fantastic news, keep it up and spread the word. Sadly, you are not in the majority.

I propose a simple rule — if you hire a person, make sure you spend the whole of their first day with them, like a good captain would. Show them what they will be doing, get them a computer (and help them log in), then make sure there is an event planned for the evening so that they can meet other people. And not just the people in your team; invite everyone, as I bet there are plenty of people who have no idea what each others names are but are too scared to ask! Social occasions bring teams together in two ways:

  1. They create a shared experience — the “Eastenders” effect as my friend Andy DV calls it. It’s something everyone in the team now has in common outside work, that they then discuss at work (btw if you’re currently thinking “I want my employees doing work at work”, then this post is not for you). The advent of On-demand TV, combined with so many options for an evening’s entertainment, has made it much harder to find this commonality. Social occasions are now are best bet to get it back (just think the day after the x-mas party).
  2. Social situations outside the office break down interpersonal barriers often (but not exclusively) by having a few drinks (especially in the UK). Now I realise this issue is contentious and I’m not saying that you have to drink, but time and time again my personal experience has found that it helps team morale to do so. People relax and feel comfortable talking about things that aren’t work, which often includes raising issues that they have at work but didn’t have the confidence (or hadn’t found the “right” moment) to say out loud. Defense mechanisms are relaxed and people take points on board much better, hopefully leading to an improved team spirit when back in the office.

So what if you’re worried that members of your team don’t know enough about each other, and they’ve already gone past the “induction” phase where it’s ok to ask “stupid” questions? Well Management 3.0 has quite a few tools that can be the focus of a breakout session to help break those barriers, with Personal Maps being the most applicable here. They challenge you to map out what you know about colleagues professional and personal lives.

Another thing that makes all this even harder, is that most offices are simply not set up to encourage serendipitous interaction between staff, as crazy as that sounds. Think desk dividers, meeting rooms booked weeks in advance (often filled by only 2 or 3 people) and silence as the default office noise level. How did we get here? Some companies have tried to combat this with the horrifically named “collaboration zones”, which although represent a good idea in principle, don’t magically allow the coincidental overhearing of conversations that can be so vital to building cohesion in a modern office. Instead we are left with rows of people who sit in the same seats, listen to noise-cancelling headphones and speak to the same people at lunch each day. Unsurprisingly this rarely leads to great new ideas becoming reality.

So a challenge to you all: meet someone new today, find out what they do at work and then what they do when they’re not at work! If you find that easy, organise an event and invite everyone you can. It’s time for us all to create some new connections.