September 12, 2022
Fostering possibility and innovation in the hybrid workplace
More than two years into the pandemic now, employers are having to make the decision of whether to stay remote, return to in-person, or something in between. Employees, it seems, are less than eager to return to “the way it was.” Just this week, we talked with a couple of clients who have a number of open positions due to people resigning after their respective bosses required a full-time return to the office. In fact, a recent survey showed that only 49% of workers asked to return to the office full-time are actually going back.
One of the arguments often made against fully remote or hybrid workplaces is that there isn’t much opportunity for so-called “watercooler chat” – spontaneous encounters between coworkers that result in casual, unstructured, and perhaps not even business-related conversations.
Nowadays, it seems that these water coolers are few and far between, both literally and metaphorically speaking.
And although the watercooler space does not purport to be anything other than a place to refill your water bottle and casually chat with whomever is nearby, there are various types of important conversations that can regularly occur in these informal, less task-oriented spaces. One particular type of conversation worthy of closer attention is one that we call a conversation for possibilities.
Although conversations for possibilities are a common kind of conversation, they are perhaps the least well examined. People can engage in this kind of conversation all the time, often without realizing they could do so. 1
To give a very basic example, someone might say to you, “Rotten day, isn’t it?”
If we were to analyze this short sentence from a linguistic perspective, we might discover that what they’re really saying is, “I assess that not a lot is possible today, certainly not as much as is possible on an ‘average’ day, and I invite you to join me in that assessment.”
As a result of this conversation, certain possibilities and impossibilities come into focus; for example, through the conversation it can become clear that going out for an after-work happy hour together may no longer be in the cards. At the same time, other possibilities may disclose themselves to you; for example, if this is someone that you care about, you may begin exploring why they see the day as a rotten day, as well as exploring possibilities around how you could help make their day better.
This conversation also opens an opportunity, even a momentary one, to build or maintain rapport with your colleague, to get a sense of what kind of person they are, and to discover the kind of things that matter to them. Even in these “stop and chat” moments, we can actively contribute to maintaining a basis for future, more consequential interactions.
Although this is a somewhat trivial example, it can nevertheless illustrate just how pervasive this kind of conversation is, and the tangible consequences they can have.
Why these exploratory, seemingly unstructured conversations are important
Before you and your team take any kind of action, it is necessary to have exploratory conversations that frames your actions, whether you do so intentionally or not. This type of exploration can happen in an ad hoc occasional manner, or it can happen by setting aside specific moments in which teams explore possibilities, plausibilities, and speculations untethered from immediate tasks and results.
If we don’t take care to have these types of exploratory conversations prior to making decisions and embarking on a course of action, we can commit the error of misunderstanding concerns and opportunities and obscuring possibilities that could, in fact, be relevant to us. This could lead to waste, missed opportunities and moods like frustration, resignation and distrust.
Don’t get us wrong, if we are to make things happen, ultimately it is important to come to a resolution and make specific declarations about what you will do going forward. If we tried to remain open to all possibilities, we would quickly become overwhelmed, and struggle to decide on what actions to take. However, prior to declaring what you will (or will not do), it is crucial to engage in prior exploratory conversations. Arguably, these conversations can happen more readily when we are in-person and can bump into each other in the hallways or around the watercooler.
However, being in the same room does not guarantee that this kind of exploratory conversation will, in fact, happen.
My team has ample time for spontaneous, casual conversation; why is little happening as a result?
We claim that it is because most people simply don’t know how to have conversations for possibilities. Many people aren’t even cognizant of the fact that their casual chats, like the one mentioned above, can feed into a conversation for possibilities, rather than a simple way of passing the time.
Whether remote, hybrid, and often even in person, conversations for possibilities tend to happen on the margins of an organization’s practice, and are only becoming rarer.
To bring back the casual water cooler chat, a number of different software solutions have emerged, like Donut for Slack, which will randomly connect coworkers for informal calls with no agenda––a laudable attempt to engineer surprising contingencies back into the remote workplace.
But the last thing people want today is more meetings, especially when the average time spent in meetings has almost doubled since the pandemic, now accounting for over half of the workweek. And while many agree that informal, spontaneous chats serve well as a part of healthy and much-needed breaks from organized meetings, some say that there is little evidence that they actually have an impact on productivity and innovation.
What do we suggest you do?
We agree that not every ‘watercooler’ type chat will have a great impact on productivity or innovation. But certain types of conversations, like the ones that we call conversations for possibilities, can. By learning how to identify conversations for possibilities, we can then learn how to take care when an opportunity for having them arises. We propose that, with practice, you can develop a permanent discipline of engaging in in this kind of conversation for possibilities, so that the possibilities you pursue in life are drawn from a more vibrant range of possibilities rather than simply those that happen to come to you.
We also propose that as a leader, you can learn how to facilitate and promote conversations for possibilities within your team –– an ability that often distinguishes great leaders –– whether in person or online.
It is important to note that it isn’t enough to simply declare that you and your team will have these conversations––that’s only the first step. Learning how to have this type of conversation in a productive way requires the development of a specific skill set around navigating moods and language. For better or worse, these are not skills that we are all born with, but they are skills that we can all learn.
If you care about maintaining a vital and dynamic space of possibilities that are available to you in your organization and relationships, then perhaps it’s time we start taking the informal, “unfocused” conversations more seriously.
If you are interested in learning more about conversations for possibilities, as well as other crucial conversations of teams, including conversations for action and for building trust, you may want to enroll in the upcoming Working Effectively in Small Teams (WEST) program, starting this fall. In this remote yet fully immersive program, participants develop skills and sensibilities that enable them to interact more successfully in the teams in which they participate, in order to accomplish what they care to accomplish.
1 Much of the content of this article was adapted from Fernando Flores’ 2013 book “Conversations for Action” (“CFA”), a collection of essays written between 1985 and 2000 on business and workflow design. In it, “conversations for possibilities” are discussed as the phenomenon that always precede conversations for action.
You can learn more about CFA here →