Improving Team Communication: The Power of Face-to-Face Interactions

- Practices & Exercises

by Marko van Gaans, Management 3.0 Facilitator

Effective communication within a team is one of the core building blocks of the Management 3.0 Foundation Workshop’s Develop Competence view and I would argue that it is by far the most important skill set any team should aim to perfect. As we’ve been given more and more tools to encourage communication, our actual ability to effectively communicate with each other seems to have deteriorated. From typing short messages using made-up and confusing abbreviations to sending those messages to someone actually sitting right next to us, the art of casual conversation isn’t quite what it used to be both in our personal and professional environments.

“Talk better,” i.e. to stop hiding behind policies and procedures and instead encourage informal discussions, is a key element of the Develop Competence module I’d like to draw your attention to.

The three steps necessary to improve team communications are:

  • To reduce/bridge distance
  • To document relevant outcomes (or to stay away from paper as I say in my own workshops)
  • To establish rituals

#1 Way to Improve Team Communication: Reduce & Bridge Distance

To encourage open communication people need to be able to actually communicate with each other. For those working directly together this isn’t normally an issue but for those not directly working together reducing the distance is essential. This is hardly a new idea, since the 1970s managers have been trying to bridge the gap between themselves and the workforce through a number of techniques. The ones I personally remember are open-door policies, in which managers would literally leave their office doors open to encourage more communication, and the so-called “Management By Walking Around” technique made popular by the 1982 book, In Search of Excellence.

More recently we’ve seen the development of open office floors and another technique, “Management By Sitting Around” where managers are leaving their private offices to sit and work among their staff. All these different techniques have their advantages and problems, so I think it suffices to say here that what works and doesn’t will be completely situation dependent. Through experimentation an organization should decipher what works best for their own situation, the point is that something needs to be done to get people talking to each other.

#2 Way to Improve Team Communication: Stay Away From Paper

Paper here doesn’t refer to actual paper, rather it’s any form of written messages. Since the introduction of the PC in the workplace in the 1980s, we’ve come to rely more and more on written communication. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, as a ‘paper’ trail allows us to keep track of messages and look up things we forgot. However, too often people can be found emailing or texting while sitting next to each other.

This is wrong because most of us don’t actually read those messages, we just scan and forget. A better way would be to first talk to each other and then follow up with a written message. If talking means leaving your office/desk to go and find someone even better, you’ll get some much needed exercise as well. If this is physically not doable, a phone or video call would be better than an email or text message. The spoken word simply has a more direct effect than a written message, especially in an age where we receive far more messages then we can effectively process.

#3 Way to Improve Team Communication: Establish Rituals

Probably the most important step to take for “talking more” is the establishment of rituals. The reason for this is that rituals provide a sense of connection and thus help improve communication.

When I was working as an airline Operations Officer in Spain in 2001, we had a simple but effective ritual. Every morning, the officer on duty gave a quick briefing about what was going on with the fleet and what issues might be expected throughout the day. All staff were required to attend these briefings, even though the content did not have any real relevance for most of them. The point of their attendance was show that they were important in the process of keeping the fleet afloat despite the fact they were administrative support staff and their work didn’t have much to do with the airplanes. The positive outcome of these briefings was that our admin staff felt involved and as a result engaged with the pilots, technicians and other specialists about what was going on in their world. Casual conversations in which both parties felt comfortable using the jargon of the aviation business. Some other examples of rituals would be the daily stand-up meetings and retrospectives of Scrum teams, weekly video conference meetings for remote teams or even Friday afternoon drinks for office staff after a week of hard work.

#4: Way to Improve Team Communication: The Niko-Niko Calendar

An interesting ritual pointed out to me recently by fellow facilitator Stefan Nüsperling during one of our own Management 3.0 rituals, was the monthly facilitator hangout. It’s the Japanese Niko-Niko Calendar. This “with a smile” calendar is a beautifully simple visualization of a team’s overall mood. An extensive description of the tool as well as a template of the calendar can be found here, but I’ll briefly summarize the practice:

The calendar is just a grid with the columns representing days/dates and the rows the members of the team. At the end of each work day, the team gathers around and scores their day by choosing a colored sticker representing their mood. The original Niko-Niko Calendar uses four colors, green, yellow, orange and red. But when I introduced the practice for the first time last month at a Foundation Workshop in the Philippines, I decided to opt only for green, orange and red.

The reason for this was that I used the image of traffic lights a lot to visualize ideas throughout my workshops and so it made more sense to me to do that here as well. Also, I’m not American, I don’t have awesome or amazing days so I opted for the following:

  • Green: It was a good day (awesome if you please);
  • Orange: Meh, not bad not good, nothing to write home about;
  • Red: One of those days you’d better stayed in bed!

A communicative strong point of this practice is that as the team members put their stickers on the calendar, they explain to each other why they chose a specific colour. Their reasoning can be either work-related or of a more personal nature it doesn’t matter as long as they explain why they feel how they feel. If they had a great day, they’ll get the chance to share this emotion with their colleagues and if they had a bad day, they can close it off, go home and start afresh the next day.

For me, the real strength lies in the visual part of the calendar. When I showed an example with just one day filled out, there was a purr of approval among the Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches who attended my workshop. But when I showed them a completely filled out calendar, there was this collective ‘aha’ moment during which everybody saw the value the visual power of this tool.

After some intense discussion, we also agreed that the Niko-Niko Calendar would be a great tool to work on team engagement. The visual power of the calendar combined with the insights provided by Moving Motivators, will help managers to create the best possible work environment for their teams. It is no wonder that some Japanese corporations have walls with months, if not years, of Niko-Niko Calendars to visualize how their workers’ happiness evolved over time.

To sum it up, talking more means bridging the gap between team members, making sure they talk face-to-face not screen-to-screen and creating simple rituals. Combine this with a Niko-Niko Calendar and you’ll have people communicating more, sharing the good times and avoiding taking the bad ones home… and you’ll have a great visual tool to help you keep your team energized.

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez (Unsplash)

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