The Water Cooler May Be Gone, Talking Isn't: A Current Approach to Knowing What People Are Saying
For managers in today’s world, it's more likely than not that team members are not in one central location. They are spread around the office, and home, and potentially across the country or world like never before. Staying in touch with the happenings of a team presents a unique challenge. Gone are the days of keeping a finger on the pulse of your team through hallway conversations and casual drop ins. Hybrid work is shifting the office water cooler, making it even more challenging–and important– than ever to stay in tune with your team.
For many, this introduces the question: How do I take the temperature of the team to know what they are really thinking?
People are talking as much as they did in the workplace. It just looks different. People have a need to connect. They will find a different way to do it when working remotely. Many colleagues are now following each other on social media, texting, or private chatting during team meetings. One of my clients found out that their entire team has a WhatsApp chain that the manager is not on, which leads to information spreading faster than it did in the “before times” when they were in the office. Employees talk. The sooner we accept that fact, the faster we can gain access to and even begin to influence what they’re talking about.
In addition to considering what people are talking about, it’s also critical to be mindful of who is doing the talking.
Is the employee starting the conversation engaged, a leader among peers, or a natural influencer? If so, then knowing the scoop as told by that person is incredibly valuable social capital. Why? Because that person has the ability to shift the narrative, push back on what’s being discussed at the virtual water cooler, or even take the lead to influence the direction of the conversation. If the person driving conversation is disgruntled, disengaged, or contaminating the well, then their complaints are likely more inflammatory than accurate.
The importance of the one-on-one check-in between managers and employees cannot be overstated. It is a critical connection point of the employee-supervisor relationship and can be the perfect opportunity to gain a sense of what is happening beneath the surface.
Get curious, not just about what people are talking about on the team, but about individuals. The number one question managers need to be asking right now is, “How are you…really?” It’s not the throw away question it used to be where “fine” was the stock answer. People are dealing with bigger and more complex issues now than ever before and managers need to carve out regular space to genuinely show interest in employees as people. Once employees feel seen as individuals, they are more likely to share what’s going on at work that could be valuable for managers to know.
There is a magic question here: “If you were me, what would you be focused on?”
This question is useful because it’s forward facing (not looking backward or suggesting blame), it encourages perspective-taking, and it allows the person with the information to sort through what’s important and what’s not. Asking the question need not guarantee that action is taken, but there’s immense value in knowing what others would do if they were in your shoes.
Your employees are still talking. But the forums have changed. In order to stay in touch with your team as a whole and as individuals, be proactive, ask, and–most importantly–listen. People will tell you.