Read any report, and the collateral damage of COVID can be seen and felt everywhere. Read research on COVID’s impact on workplace morale, and you will see evidence correlating the timeliness of the pandemic with the health of the organizational culture. I do believe that the pandemic changed the way businesses manage everyday transactions and how COVID has forced us to reinvent how organizations succeed. COVID has demanded us to rethink what work-life balance looks like in one corner and, in the other corner, challenged us to refine the definition of reporting off from work. As additional research continues to unravel COVID’s impact on organizational health, I think there is something more than just COVID impacting the effectiveness of teams recently. I don’t want to blame COVID solely for the decentralized aspects of modern teams nor do I want to believe it is completely responsible for degraded workplace morale. Instead, I think something else has drastically changed over the last decade that is fundamental to our existence.
First, I think we all agree that for a team to be considered a high-performance team, the team must display an ability to collaborate. The quality of collaboration is created over time as trust organically grows within the organization. To grow, it requires forms of fertilizer like small sidebar conversations and activities to discover individual motivations. You can’t just go into a problem-solving discussion with strangers and solve a complex problem without finding out who you are working with. Consider evidence nowadays when you have any video conference call with individuals you have never worked with before. What’s the first thing you do? Good morning everyone, will you state your name, your title, and a little background of who you are? We must know what makes up the individual that we are working with to begin collaborating.
Therefore to establish collaboration traction, we must have platforms to practice small versions of collaboration or the organization will wilt. You may try and counter this by saying we have video conference team meetings that encourage collaboration. You may also say, we have training workshops that teach us team-building skills. I hear you, but this isn't the on-the-job training or daily practice that is necessary to keep the health of the organization connected.
So stop with the excuses and realize that your latest workshop will not independently build the homogeneous aspects you want for your organization to succeed. Instead, let’s challenge our thoughts on an individual human necessity. Go back about 10 years or just before COVID. Think back to a time just before the likes of a Keurig coffee maker or endless options of plastic or stainless containers that hold the entirety of your recommended daily intake of water. Think back to a time in the office when the coffee dripped slowly for 5 minutes making a pot for ten individual cups. Think back to a time when you drank your water from a solo paper-cone taken from the packaged sleeve of hundreds. We had to commit to going to the coffee pot or the water cooler for single servings to stay hydrated or get our caffeine fix. These single servings forced us into mingling with others.
Sure, sometimes you refilled and back to your work area without any interruptions. However, most of the time you crossed paths with other individuals and were building the fundamental attributes of collaboration with short stints of casual communication. You may have even crossed paths at the coffee pot with someone you may have despised working with, but were forced to practice small talk as you both waited for the pot to finish brewing. Nowadays, you just ignore this type of individual from behind your computer screen as you drink your recommended daily minimum of water out of your Yeti water bottle.
This isn’t a battle cry that says that if you throw out your Keurigs and go back to a drip coffee you will be able to start building the foundational components to collaborate again. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t measure out your three liters of water to assist in hitting the minimum recommendations per day. Instead, we have replaced a legacy mechanism that enables mingling. We have significantly altered our mean time between chitchats (MTBC) which has hindered our ability to collaborate.
Water cooler chat is just as important (if not more so) in the digital age than ever before. The best managers already know it’s beneficial—and you’re holding your teams back if you do not give them the freedom to be human. - Vantage Circle
If we were sailors on the mystic oceans 200 years ago, we would have conducted these random talks at the scuttlebutt. This scuttlebutt is a barrel with a small hole in the side that sailors would get water from, which allowed mingling on the latest rumor about the captain or discussing what shenanigans we got ourselves into at the last port. If we go back 2000 years, we would have been drinking water from a “nasonis" in the streets of Rome. These barrels, with a small nozzle off the side that looked like a crooked nose, would provide water to us for free as we engaged with others within the markets. If we would have lived in the outback with Aboriginals 20,000 years ago, we would have gathered with others at "gnamma" holes that replenish from underground springs or rainwater run-off for generations. So if we have been gathering in person at a location that provides water to us for tens of thousands of years, and we just suddenly stopped, wouldn’t you think that might be a problem? I might go on to say that mingling at the water cooler is almost as important as the water itself for an organization to survive.
Made of cast iron, the "nasoni" drinking fountains stand about three feet tall and weigh in at an impressive 200 lbs. There are 2,500 of them scattered around the metropolitan area, and you can find some of the oldest in the Trastevere district. - Explore-Italian-Culture.com
So what is your organization’s mean-time-between chitchats? What does your organization do to mingle so that you can learn how to work with each other? Do you create things similar to the attributes of a barbershop or do you actively practice in remote versions of virtual team-building exercises? As we rebrand what high-performance teams and organizations look like in a world that has decreased the ability to mingle tangibly in person, we have to find other ways to improve our mean time between chitchats. If we fail to put this at the forefront of our initiatives, our organizations will never be able to collaborate and succeed at the missions that they are challenged with.