In order to work effectively in an office environment these days is likely to require working with others. The art of communication infuses just about everything we do in today’s modern world. Technology may infuse and enable new forms of communication, but on either side of the medium are us – the people who utilise and derive purpose from the information flow.
Responsive communication is my attempt to articulate what is ultimately a simple philosophy. Communication often has greatest effectiveness when it is timely, relevant and focused. As part of fulfilling the timeliness factor, I believe there is a feedback loop for responses that enhances communication effectiveness. The feedback loop may be as simple as a verbal acknowledgement in a conversation, but it also extends to our use of email and messaging platforms.
Personally, I have always attempted to remain in control of my email inbox. Since 2013, the challenge to keep it under 10 items at the end of the day has been a constant battle. I find that when it does start to build up beyond the 10 items, I spend a few moments filing emails away. Where multiple emails relate to a single conversation, I only keep the latest one in my inbox, since it would likely capture all previous threads. No matter how busy I may be, I will always keep an eye on incoming messages. Where a quick answer can be provided, I pause (where possible) to action it and file it away. Depending on the nature of the action required, how complicated the content/topic is, I may also follow-up with a phone call or even organise a meeting to progress the discussion/action.
Where an email cannot be actioned easily/quickly, without a significant amount of effort, I like to try to provide an estimate time to action/address (ETA). As part of providing this ETA, I may also choose (where appropriate) to mention other current work that is requiring my attention. In this way, everyone is aware of what work is gaining my focus and attention, and also more importantly – the priority of their work. This is particularly useful for allowing the originator/requestor of the work to agree to the ETA, or request a re-prioritisation. Often, I receive acknowledgements of the ETA stating an acceptance, and in some cases – even a message “oh, it’s not that important – next week/X date is fine”. Through this practice, my colleagues may not have the answer they require, but at least they have confidence that they will get their answer, and importantly – when to expect it.
In recent months, I have observed firsthand where the lack of these principles and approach (in other colleagues) has created frustration across a project team. The communication issue came to a head, where team members simply required a quick response from a key stakeholder (something possible within 5 min) but because of the overwhelming workload, that 5 minutes would only be spent either at the end of the day, or worse still, at a future point in time.
Getting work done, not just relies on effective communication (measured as accurate information, provided in a timely manner to the right people), but also trust. Often, we take trust for granted, but sometimes you have to simply trust that the information you are receiving is correct and that the people you work with have the appropriate knowledge, experience and authority to provide that information. The last thing highly productive office workers need is for someone else to be checking and verifying their work, let alone re-do the same work they have already done. This is how trust is paramount to ensuring that when someone says something, or has done their job, we build upon their accomplishment and push the ball along.
Naturally, the unknown creates a lot of fear. This uncertainty and lack of confidence is sometimes the driver behind the lack of trust required to turn a group of individuals into a well-oiled project team. Sometimes the amount of uncertainty can cause all kinds of misunderstanding and mistrust. Often, once we demonstrate competency in various activities, people begin to develop that trust – that the person is a highly capable individual – able to handle, work out and resolve uncertainties and turn them into facts, information and requirements.
Workshopping and spending dedicated time to understanding current work situations/ practices/ processes will often be a good start to resolving and reducing uncertainty. Preparing for such workshop opportunities is also key to ensuring the time spent is maximised. The documentation effort spent beforehand will often help people to see what the current situation is, correct the understanding and eventually lead to a mature, agreed and documented process. Ensuring that all the key stakeholders are present is also vital, because the last thing you want is to be a session and only then for people to point out knowledge gaps because certain people are not present. Sometimes, teams need to be represented and contributing to workshops – ensuring representation is present and contributing is also important, because if one person is not available, at least they have appointed a delegate to represent their needs.
Trust is not the same as making assumptions. Whilst they appear to be very similar, trust is more often based on a higher level of information certainty. Trust is also based on intuition, an inner knowledge not necessarily reached via logic and reason. Trust and intuition often guide us in decision-making. Trust is often the oil in the cogs of high performing teams, where forming dream teams of talent are not so much about the individual performer, but the ecosystem and processes that support the whole. Each contributing individual thus looks after their respective area of responsibility, trusting that others will do likewise, and the train of momentum builds from there.
Understanding the different styles of how people work helps to bring these attributes together. Where teams have had previously worked together, knowledge of how each person operates is already present. Sharing this amongst the team up-front as part of the team formation process becomes an invaluable step in ensuring team dynamics. For newly formed teams without the past experience, an initial phase of norm-ing or normalisation takes place, where the team discovers this working rhythm. Having the opportunity to articulate early in a project, communication and work styles is a mechanism by which this uncertainty is resolved.
In this way, high-performance teams are not exclusive; anyone can build the environment and conditions for success. Being a member of a highly productive team is not necessarily about certain individuals, but how the individuals learn to work together. That ability to influence and encourage these behaviours, characteristics and attitudes is thus part of what it takes to work effectively in the modern office environment.