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Team-Building: Incidental Contact
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Team-Building: Incidental Contact - Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Incidental Contact

Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Incidental Contact

A friend recently shared what he considered an embarrassing moment. On his way in, he noticed someone who didn’t seem to know where she was going. A few minutes later, he saw her again, this time on the same floor of the building where his office was. She knocked gently at his colleague’s door and waited. When the colleague didn’t answer her door, he thought the stranger was lost, and had chosen this door arbitrarily, to ask for directions.

“Can I help you find something?” he asked, thinking he was offering help to a stranger in need.

“No thank you,” was the stranger’s reply. I’m going off site with so-and-so. I can hear her on the phone in there, so I’ll just wait.”

As he strode to his own office, he realized that the stranger’s voice sounded familiar. He was pretty sure it was another colleague in the same company, who worked a few floors above. He asked someone nearby to take a peek down the hall and tell him if the woman waiting was indeed someone he worked with.

She was, and he had had several phone conversations and emails exchanges with her in just the past month. Yet despite being with the firm for more than a year, he had somehow never met her in person. He hurried down the hall and apologized for treating her like a stranger, and the two had a good laugh about how two people can work so physically close to each other and never have occasion to meet face-to-face.

A few floors in an office building sometimes might as well be a few miles. We’re all wrapped up in our everyday tasks, and we conduct so much business without ever being in the same space. It’s easy not to know your coworkers.

Members of your team not knowing each other is not a good thing if it can be reasonably avoided. Obviously, a firm with a thousand employees can’t avoid it, but a moderately sized company should be discouraged if its people haven’t learned each other by name and face after a full year together.

Who do people know, anyway? First, they know people directly involved in their work on a daily basis: supervisors, partners, secretaries. But second, they know the people they encounter in person every day. The guy with the cubicle overlooking the copier knows everyone who uses the copier. People with neighboring desks know each other. People sharing the break room at the same time know each other.

This is one of the reasons (in theory) the open office plan is often embraced as it’s been touted, and it’s why Steve Jobs famously wanted only one set of restrooms in the central space of Pixar’s headquarters. Jobs wanted to encourage as much incidental interaction as possible, understanding that some of the best ideas, the ones that seem to come out of nowhere, are the result of weird serendipity. Job was finally convinced to add a second restroom to the second floor, but he did get one of his wishes: a large atrium at the entrance of the building where everyone would encounter everyone else on entering and leaving, but all-staff meetings could be held to encourage as much mixing and mingling as possible.

This is also why the water cooler (and its accompanying water cooler talk) isn’t something to be dismissed as merely an excuse to take breaks. The developers of the collaborative Basecamp software, which was originally an in-house system allowing its far-flung employees could work together in real time, also developed Campfire, a real-time chat-about-anything space similar to the old internet chat rooms. Basecamp was necessary so team members could work together on projects, but Campfire was necessary for sharing cat videos and to discuss last night’s big football game.

Basecamp’s founders knew that working together is one thing, but encountering each other and chatting incidentally was another, also valuable, consideration. “Doughnuts in the conference room” isn’t just a company-wide email one sends to get rid of some pastry. It’s a way to gather everyone together in non-threatening, casual, interactive space.

You’ve worked incredibly hard to assemble a competent, confident team. To allow members of it not to know each other by name and face counteracts much of that hard work. Now that you’ve got the team, encouraging as much incidental interaction as possible creates the dynamic and creative environment to reap maximum benefits.


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Team-Building: Incidental Contact - Executive Leadership Articles

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