I miss casual conversations with my team members that began with “oh, by the way …” More importantly, I think that, as leaders, we’ve lost important information sources because we don’t have those conversations in the hybrid work world.
What were “oh, by the way” conversations?
They were the quick exchanges with coworkers as you left a meeting, the five-minute chats while getting coffee, and the momentary comments made while waiting together for an elevator or walking to your car. What primarily marked them as “oh, by the way” chats were that they were unplanned; they happened in the moment; and they required no intentional energy, yet they yielded a wealth of insight about your work, your team, and your business.
I think those conversations are the greatest victims of the pandemic and our new hybrid work structure.
In the world of hybrid work, leaders, team members, direct reports, and skip-level employees—everyone at all levels of a business—must make a concerted effort to be spontaneous. We have to purposely schedule pulse checks to make up for the lost sparks that are ignited while easily testing an idea in the moment. Because we aren’t co-located, the interactions around the periphery of intentional meetings have disappeared.
The absence of “oh, by the way” conversations is profoundly changing the work of leaders. Those who led remotely before the pandemic knew this already, but given the rapidly changing format and structure of office work, it’s now a mainstream challenge.
What did “oh, by the way” conversations do for leaders? Which avenues of information gathering and communication do we need to replace in a more intentional manner?
Those quick exchanges had three powerful benefits:
- A leader could get a pulse check of team energy and engagement and offer encouragement, support, or recognition of effort.
- A leader could make an opportunistic connection to other conversations or data points, other projects and organizations, or an inadvertent and exciting collaborative idea.
- A leader could offer in-the-moment, micro-feedback, the kind that you would forget by the time an annual performance review comes around or commentary that is merely a nudge. It is valuable to hear but not hefty enough to rate scheduling a meeting to discuss.
Leaders need those micro-opportunities for engagement and feedback with their teams.
Many leaders now find themselves questioning why leading in the postpandemic world seems more draining. This is precisely part of the reason why. Leaders need to use their time differently to create the opportunities for interactions that used to happen spontaneously, which now take additional time and attention. Although there is no easy answer to this challenge, there is ongoing, abundant experimentation.
What can leaders do to find “oh, by the way” conversations in the hybrid work world? Which techniques are leaders trying?
Virtual Office Hours: Open a line on the software collaboration tool your business uses. Let the team know you are available for impromptu meetings: “I'll be available via Zoom today from 3 to 5 p.m. You are welcome to drop by for a chat!”
“Ask Me Anything” Channels in Messaging Apps: Team members ask questions, and you answer in the very transparent and visible way that messaging apps (Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Discord, among others) accommodate.
“No Agenda” Check-Ins: Establish times to ask your team, individually and collectively, the simple question “how are you doing?” Listen carefully to the answers.
Weekly Blogs With a Request for Comments: Draft blog posts that communicate, “Here’s what is on my mind. Here is what I wonder about.” This could also be in the form of a quick recorded video.
The “Reflection Five”: Save five minutes at the end of each meeting—which some leaders find to be the most valuable time in the entire meeting—to ask for reflections:
- What does this trigger for you?
- What excites you about this project?
- Is there anything you are worried about?
“Oh, by the way” has always been a verbal signal of an opportunity for a leader to listen carefully for new and valuable tidbits of information. That hasn’t changed—and never will. It’s imperative for leaders in today’s hybrid work world to create forums that keep those “oh, by the way” comments coming.