Informal social relationships have always been linked to effective performance. Evidence that this continues to be the case comes from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. In The New Science of Building Great Teams, Pentland reports how, using wearable badges that produce “sociometrics”, he and his team at MIT found that “the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings.”
The recommendation to a bank’s call centre management experiencing productivity problems with some teams was to ensure that all members of a team took a break at the same time, which would allow team members to socialise away from their workstations. The bank’s management is forecasting a $15 million in productivity increases as a result of changing break schedules more widely across multiple call centres.
Several things came to mind when I was thinking about why this should be. When I was doing my PhD at Cranfield University, I shared a room with a team of researchers on a prestigious project with Nissan. They were out of the office four days a week and onsite at the nearby Nissan Design Centre. It was party time when they came back in to the office on a Friday – every Friday. None of us in the room got much work done and the whole building was disrupted. The team had one really vivacious and funny member so of course our room became the place to come and hang out.
I admitted one day to my tutor that I was regularly doing nothing on a Friday – I was on a paid contract for the then Department of Trade and Industry. He said, “Do you get around to sorting out each other’s problems?”. When I answered ‘yes’, he said well stop worrying.
So here is one reason why socialising and chatting, far from being a waste of time, is good for business. People talk about their work problems and they sort each other out. The HBR article does not say what the call centre teams talked about during their breaks. Did they talk about their work problems? Who knows? I am willing to bet a pound to a penny, though, that they made each other laugh.
Again from my ancient past, working at a supermarket check-out for a spell was great fun. The canteen was a constant source of banter, most of which would be too rude to report here. The HBR article claims that team energy is one predictor of team productivity. There is nothing more energising that sharing a good laugh.
People care about what they do
If people do talk about work, it is because they care about what they do. I love the serendipity of Twitter. Being no fan of either Zuckerberg or Facebook, I don’t know why I clicked on a link to an interview with Mark Zuckerberg. I am glad I did. Responding to questions about the fall in Facebook share prices, he was asked about the share price fluctuations on morale. Did employees need incentivising?
His response was interesting. If you watch the video at about 6 minutes and 50 seconds, he says that what motivates people at Facebook, and then he corrects himself to say that he believes this motivation to be universal, is the opportunity to build things that people are proud of.
He says that while it is difficult to appreciate that you are building software that will be used by millions of people around the world, what resonates with a lot of people is the opportunity to show what you have done to friends and family and to be proud to do that.
So it seems to me that informal relationships are so consistently linked to high performance because people talk about their work – they care about what they do and they care about each other. What a shame that it takes people having to wear sensors that gather data before chatting can be recognised as value-creating rather than time-wasting.