“It’s just not the same,” I’ve heard repeatedly. “It’s not just that I miss bumping into people – I feel like I have no idea what’s going on across the company.” I can hear a real grief in my clients’ voices as they mourn the loss of spontaneity, and not just because they like to socialize. Until they were sent home last March, most people didn’t appreciate how much information was passed among colleagues, sometimes leading to new partnerships or, at the very least, the avoidance of big clashes.
A recent research paper studied the change in communication habits as over 61,000 Microsoft employees went remote in 2020; after showing a decline in synchronous and information rich communication in favor of asynchronous emails and IMs, the authors conclude, “We expect that the effects we observe on workers’ collaboration and communication patterns will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation.” They warn that long-term decisions to transition to hybrid and mixed-mode work can permanently damage employees’ ability to work together, unless deliberate efforts are made to get people talking again.
If you’re part of a decision-making team that is devising or designing the way your teams will work in 2022 and beyond, take note. If you expect that after 19 months at home, people will spontaneously return to rich communication channels without your encouragement, be prepared to be disappointed. Inertia is strong, even among the complainers. But the good news is that you can provide people with tools to make it easier to update each other explicitly and regularly on what’s going on.
Luckily, Brené Brown comes to the rescue, once again.
In a recent podcast episode of “Dare to Lead,” she teaches a tool she developed within her own organization to make sure that decisions are thought through thoroughly before any green lights are given. My take is that if it could be useful in fully in-person offices, it’s non-negotiable for remote or hybrid environments. It’s a new kind of bridge for communicating and collaborating across the ether.
It’s called The 5c’s. Before any decision is made, get answers to all these questions:
Color – what will the final project look like? Paint a detailed picture.
Context – why now? What’s going on with our clients/community/customers that makes this necessary?
Connective tissue – what else is going on within our organization that might overlap? What resources do you need versus what’s available?
Cost – how much will it cost?
Consequence – what’s at stake if it doesn’t happen? What’s the reward if it does?
This tool can be used in a few different ways. First of all, executive teams should use it to prioritize and align major projects across the organization. Secondly, managers can require direct reports to answer these questions before they present a new idea, ensuring they come prepared to meetings. Third, direct reports can use this language to ask for more details from their managers or peers when an assignment comes across their desk without sufficient context. And across the entire organization, it can streamline and focus meeting agendas.
When it comes to remote and hybrid teams, what’s missing most is connective tissue. Using the 5c’s requires people to reach out to their peers for more information. I can imagine the following questions being asked over Slack, by email, but preferably (gasp!) by picking up the phone or scheduling a quick Zoom call:
Hey, my team is thinking of doing ___. We think you’d be helpful on ___ part of it. Do you think you’ll have some bandwidth to join us in ___ (timeframe) to work on it?
Hey, do you know who on the team already knows how to ____? We’re thinking of doing ___ and don’t want to do double work if it’s already here / would love to team up.
Hey, I saw on the calendar that you have ____ (event/deadline) on ___ date. Could we hop on a Zoom call and you’ll tell me a bit more about what’s entailed? I’m thinking of hosting ____ around then and want to make sure we’re streamlining our resources.
If you’re worried about a long-term slide in productivity and innovation, start using the 5c’s today. You’ll see increases in collaboration, transparency, and accountability across your company. Once these 5c’s become a part of your organization’s vocabulary, the nostalgia for finding things out spontaneously will fade quickly as information starts flowing once again.