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It’s good to talk

Steve Elsom, director with Number 4 Consulting, says the infamous Busby had it bang on in those old telly adverts for BT.

It was Busby in the BT adverts of the late 1970’s who coined the phrase … and it resonated with us all. From a huddle to a pow-wow, a gossip to a soiree, it was deemed fashionable to ‘talk’. It became part of the fabric of our working day … it helped us to develop our life skills, build our confidence, and of course, hear some juicy tit bits! Offices, shops and factories up and down the country played host to these gatherings … at the water cooler, in the kitchen or in the corridor … they were an essential ingredient to staff wellbeing …although that word (wellbeing) hadn’t been invented back then.

So what has changed? No one talks anymore. Folk cross the road, divert their glaze, shuffle off in a different direction …whilst of course, no-one works in an office anymore – everyone works from home.

The ‘social awkwardness’ that has become a feature of the pandemic, means that we aren’t encouraged to talk anymore … we have to ‘rush along’ and return to the relative safety of our homes as soon as possible. This has been the case for a year now and it is doing untold damage not only to the fabric of society in terms of our communication skills, but immeasurable damage to businesses, as employees are not engaging with each other, not learning from one another and ultimately not developing themselves.

Like most of us, I have sat through dozens of virtual meetings. A novelty to start with, too often now a chore. Lack of structure, lack of energy and lack of focus … it’s too easy to spend time trying to work out what book titles are on the shelf in the background, or why the presenter splutters and stumbles over a dozen slides with an all too often poor internet connection that makes them indecipherable. It’s becoming apparent that we are losing the ability to communicate effectively. We can only see from the neck upwards, you can’t read body language and after 20 minutes of staring down a camera lens … fatigue invariably sets in.

While online calls are fine in the short term, Steve Elsom maintains nothing can replicate the learning experience of a real office setting.

There is seemingly no-time for ‘small talk’ – it’s agenda, transaction, close and on to the next one. Also, not everyone is comfortable looking into the camera – how do I look, how do I sound, am I too loud or do I fidget too much? The ‘world of virtual’ is making us more self- conscious.

Many businesses have attempted to address the ‘social awkwardness’ by holding virtual staff events, ranging from cookery lessons to quizzes. Whilst they have a part to play, as I have mentioned above, not everyone feels comfortable in this environment. A great team player doesn’t always want to be or need to be, the captain. People can flourish and develop as ‘part of a team’, not necessarily as the ‘captain of the team’.

The sooner that business leaders accept the impact of ‘social awkwardness’ on their business – the better. We need the office environment to return and for it to be a nursery for young workers to gain experience and insight.

In the early days of my working life, I learned so much by observing what was going on around me in the office – who impressed me when they were speaking with customers, who was the most organised and who always had time for a coffee and a chat. You simply can’t replicate that ‘learning experience’ in a virtual world.

It’s over forty years since Busby encouraged us with the strap-line “make someone happy…’s good to talk”, and maybe the events of the last year have made us lose sight of this sound advice. Now is the time to ‘make that call’ and re-form those huddles and pow wows, for the sake of our job satisfaction, the businesses that we work for and most importantly, our social wellbeing.

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Steve is a regular contributor to B2B publications, see some of his recent articles for insights into current business news, leadership and much more...