How to recreate the workplace chatter of knowledge in a pandemic

We miss it, too.
We miss it, too.
Image: REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian
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There is little water cooler talk during a pandemic. Co-workers do not bump into one another on the elevator or in hallways. There are no impromptu lunch outings when people work from home. We don’t walk by whiteboards scrawled with ideas that catch our attention or overhear something pertinent to that project that is consuming us.

What’s missing is the ambient awareness of the workplace. The facts and tidbits employees absorb simply by being in the office are like a chatter of knowledge. They may seem trivial or insignificant by themselves. Yet collectively they offer insights that help us connect dots, collaborate, and ultimately do our jobs better.

The sudden absence of these workplace cues presents a challenge for anyone whose office stands like a veritable ghost town due to Covid-19. Digital collaboration platforms can help, but proactive, forward-looking managers need to look further. The tools may nudge us to meet deadlines, but they don’t make up for the loss of critical, in-person connections that drive culture.

With each passing month, the isolation and quiet of working from home is a conspicuously missing component of work life. The lack of sustained physical proximity can hurt a team’s ability to process nonverbal input and other soft signals. The cohesion and agility of a workforce relies on bonds formed by people working in close proximity. Their absence threatens the cultures that so many business leaders have worked hard to create.

We desperately need to experience ambient awareness in our new, virtual work lives. Imagine a community-based streaming channel—akin to a television show or radio station broadcast. This could be a dedicated space for employees to share anything that matters to them, helping colleagues move beyond the pleasantries that they typically exchange before collaborating. Companies need to think about getting in the programming business—as if they were media executives—to restore the critical connections that have been broken by working and living in isolation.

Imagine virtual book clubs or fitness groups. Action-movie fanatics who might never cross paths in the office could meet associates from across the company, broadening their vision and offering new perspectives. Hire a grand master to talk chess for those who want to improve their game, produce cooking shows starring employee chefs. The resulting interactions could cross-pollinate ideas between business units.

Before the pandemic, my company, Tata Consultancy Services, had more than 450,000 employees working in offices around the world. We fed off one another’s energy and enthusiasm until suddenly, 95% of our employees were working remotely. We felt the silence. That was when we started thinking seriously about recreating the ambient awareness and chatter of knowledge that we had never previously acknowledged.

The key is to reconsider what internal communications looks like and how it manifests itself. We created an employee engagement program which had media channels, events like town halls, contests, and other interesting ways to interact with our associates. Today we have more than 200,000 employees engaging with one another while others can watch—like an interaction between employees in a hallway. Our experience is teaching us that fostering ambient awareness can happen in many forms. It’s incumbent on leadership to think of creative ways to bring people together.

Another thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is the need for managers to be more frequently in touch with their people. This doesn’t mean a daily calendar overbooked with back-to-back video conferences. “Zoom fatigue” is real. Humanizing the digital workspace is key to handling this fatigue. To do this, leadership must also encourage non-work-related interactions—“hi-how-are-you-doing” check-ins, birthday celebrations, etc.—to replicate the kinds of daily interactions we had when everyone was still in the office.

Another key aspect of recreating ambient awareness is recognizing that information needs to reach employees, rather than expecting them to reach out for it. The truth is that colleagues are more likely to spend more time on social media than on corporate platforms. An enterprise with a vast social media presence should leverage those external platforms to connect with them there.

It boils down to thinking proactively about things we take for granted. The technology industry is constantly developing new ways to help companies be more productive and deliver better, more-personalized experiences. It’s time for us to recognize that creating the ambient awareness of the workplace is essential to the long-term health of organizations. Human beings are constantly fed all sorts of inputs and information that we analyze without thinking about it. We need for technology to help recreate the chatter of knowledge to fill the void that the pandemic has created.

Of course, nothing can truly replace in-person connections. Not sharing a physical space means no longer absorbing key aspects of organizational culture. Yet this pandemic has proven that resilient businesses can adapt. People are generally accomplishing their tasks from home. Global enterprises such as ours are exploring hybrid workplace models that blend remote and in-person collaboration.

The coronavirus has accelerated the adoption of digital strategies, which ultimately is a good thing. The next step is mixing creativity, experimentation, and new technology to satisfy our subconscious craving for ambient awareness.