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A Leadership Challenge: Missing Socialization and Incidental Learning

From the desk of our Principal Consultant, Mr. Tan Tat Jin

After nearly 2 years, the end of the Covid-19 pandemic is still not clearly in sight.  Many offices and shops are either closed or operating at limited capacity.  Human movements are restricted across worksites, provincial, as well as national borders.  Telecommuting or commonly known as Remote-Working, Working-From-Anywhere (WFA), or Working-From-Home (WFH) remains a forced or more appropriately, compelling choice for many organizations. It would appear from published reports that “Hybrid Work Arrangement” blending work-from-home and office has been touted by some authors as a practical HR mechanism to move an organization out of the predicament.

The two areas to focus on concerning hybrid work arrangement for Organizational Development are: Socialization and Incidental Learning

Socialization is unfortunately a misunderstood word for many people especially for those who are not au fait with the literature of Sociology, Developmental Psychology, or Organizational Development (OD).  It is almost considered as an unproductive non-task activity, where people waste their valuable time on casual conversations, especially during working hours.  It is often deemed as a personality-bias trait for a certain type of people who have the compulsive need to interact with others.  Ostensibly, office socialization does have its negative effects such as unhealthy grapevine gossips, and unplanned information leakages.  However, socialization is an important aspect of organizational development that cannot be overemphasized.

Values are often transmitted through actions, behaviors, and intimate experience-sharing sessions.  Most telecommunication tools are effective in verbal discourses and discussions, but missing in affective tactile touches, meaningful postures, and direct eye contact, which are highly essential in building trust and rapport.  These holistic emotive expressions often cannot be fully conveyed via electronic devices.  Many virtual meetings still tend to be task-oriented even though some chairpersons try to encourage people to share views openly. 

More importantly, casual exchanges of ideas, views, and feelings are lacking where communication is primarily centered on accomplishing meeting agendas using electronic devices without physical presence.  Just as many scientific inventions like microwave ovens, and Viagra are accidental, individual innovation and learning also occur out of casual conversations happening in the cafés or corridors.

Example 1:

Staff from an auditing company shares a joke that her old-time university mate could not reach her using the company’s general phone line because her Chinese name was used.  But she uses her Christian name in the office and was hardly around as she often audits clients on-site. In a big company, colleagues did not know each other well.  

Another person from a different auditing firm said that they were different as they knew their colleagues well because they often had lunch in the company’s comfortable pantry where drinks were provided free.  Many colleagues tend to order food in and eat in the pantry enjoying the convenience, comfort, and free drinks. This is a case in point on how incidental learning happened over one of the casual conversations:

A:  I am now busy auditing firm Z (responding to B’s courtesy query)

  • B: I audited them some 3 years ago and I developed a customized checklist including items to pay special attention to.  I had appended it with my report, so you might find it useful.
  • A: Thanks and that is great.  No one told me about it.  It should be helpful!

Example 2:  

Two engineers met by chance in a company organized outing:

A:  Hi, I have been given the assignment to transfer this liquid substance X to a customer site via underground pipes to their tanks (after exchanging pleasantries with B).

B:  You know… when I was in your unit some years back, we experienced liquid contamination cases and were blamed for it several times. 

A:  Oh is it?  What happened then?

B:  We reckoned their receiving tanks were not thoroughly cleaned up to standard.

A:  I have already issued instructions to this customer asking them to flush their tanks clean.

B:  You cannot trust them to do a good job.  Since it involves heavy costs, it would be wiser if our people could make a site inspection before the liquid is transferred over to avoid any lawsuit argument.

It is ironic that in life we often forget the “big ticket” items but fondly remember the little things that people did for us out of kindness, few unusual experiences or rare places visited, etc. Such experiences tend to be missing in virtual gatherings or meetings. 

If telecommunication tools can fully convey mood and electric ambiance generated by crowds of people, then sports stadiums, and concert halls will be empty!  Even psychologists tell us that humans are emotional and not rational!


Ideas to improve Socialization and Incidental Learning

  1. Create opportunities for human socialization

Intentionally plan in time for people to meet in person regularly either in or outside of the office.  There are creative ways to making the socialization opportunities happen naturally for example organized games, friendly competitions, fun group activities, learning sharing sessions, brainstorming discussions, one-on-one sharing sessions, etc. 

  1. Initiate new or rethink current corporate events

As more people WFA/WFH or working in hybrid mode, there is a need to initiate and set aside a budget to organize corporate or mass in-house events that set aside time for people to mingle and socialize. WFA/WFH for a prolonged period tends to make people sedentary, and seclusive confining themselves in their apartment for long hours, it is unhealthy physically and emotionally.   Certain organized corporate events like mass jog/walk and family outing events could be beneficial.  In addition, in-company conferences and seminars could provide space and time for sharing and learning and not be packed heavily with task items.

  1. Create physical space to facilitate socialization  

To facilitate socialization, convenient and comfortable meeting areas/points are essential.  Such amenities should naturally gravitate people towards meeting one another, i.e. not located at a distant corner.  Some examples are a cafeteria, pantry, watering holes, games or exercise facilities, and restrooms, etc.  Lobbies with coffee kiosks can also serve as meeting points for people to engage in casual or informal conversations.  If the current office setup is made up of many enclosed cubicles, perhaps there is a need to reconfigure the office to facilitate human interactions and impromptu discussions.

  1. Educate people of the need to socialize when they are in the office

People must be made aware that socialization is not a dirty word in the organization.  The need to exchange ideas and experiences informally is just as important as executing a task.  People should be encouraged to mix across vocations and locations.  Management needs to demonstrate commitment and lead by example engaging in socialization activities and not to lock themselves in their own offices.

Given the current pandemic context, the hybrid work arrangement seems to be a practical solution for many organizations twining office and home as work venues for staff.  It ameliorates the insidious long-term negative effects of pure WFA or WFH arrangement especially with regard to the lack of socialization and incidental learning.  IBM discovered the weaknesses of pure WFA work arrangement and reversed its decade-long WFA tradition in 2017 for reasons of promoting both collaboration and innovation. While the benefits of socialization and incidental learning are important to the business long-term especially when many employees are WFA/WFH, they are often hard to measure in convincing quantitative terms.  On balance, there are more positive outcomes to gain from building employee relationships across different business units and creating incidental learning opportunities through socialization. 

 

 

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