I was working in a large public sector organisation recently, 7 floors packed full of energetic and committed staff all beavering away at their workstations, when a blanket e-mail appeared on everyone’s screens from the I.T. department –
“Can everyone please shut down their computers immediately on reading this message. We have detected a virus in the system that seems to be spreading fast. Please shut down now.”
Being loyal & committed people they all obeyed, but in doing so, everyone found themselves without the single most important tool that the modern office uses – no computers! Diaries were suddenly inaccessible. Telephones (that are controlled through a server) were dead. The internet and intranet was no longer accessible. No e-mail. All work stopped.
The interesting thing for me was not why we all had to shut-down, or where the virus had come from, but in observing how people reacted to this sudden withdrawal of their lifeline.
The first reaction was a mixture of fear and disbelief that manifested itself in witty remarks, and light-hearted suggestions as to where the virus had come from and who the culprit was. All the time however, people kept tapping at keys and moving their computer mouse, as if the computer was running – but they were all shut down!
As people began to realise that their computers really were out, and that it could take a while to get them back, a spontaneous organisation-wide thought occurred – what do we do now?
Some people dug out pens and paper, turning the clock back 20 years, and continued their work in hard copy. But the majority congregated in small groups and began to talk. I mean they actually began to talk to each other!
General chit-chat at first, but as time went by the conversations turned to work issues. “What are you working on now?”, “How is it going?” type discussions. Low and behold they started hearing things from each other; interesting things, useful things, important things, relevant things that they wouldn’t have got to know if they hadn’t actually talked to each other.
After a couple of hours the “all clear” was sounded from IT and people started to trickle back to their pc’s. It wasn’t a mad rush as you might have expected. People seemed to be enjoying this novel way of communicating; talking! Now that all systems are back to normal, the talking has stopped, and everyone spends their days staring at computer screens again.
So, what can we learn from this? The conclusions that I have drawn from this highly unscientific study are:
- Our treasured computers frequently get in the way of good communication.
- The benefits of talking to each other have been forgotten; it really is quite a good way of communicating.
- People enjoy talking to each other; how significant is that in creating a stimulating work environment?
- They get much more from a face to face discussion than a whole week’s worth of e-mails.
- When talking to each other, people tend not to shout their message across the whole floor in the hope that someone (anyone) will pick up on something useful (in the way that most of us send copies of our e-mails to all and sundry).
- Face to face communication requires us to seek out the right people and to have a clear message or question in mind. It tends to be specific and relevant – not common criteria when sending e-mails.
So, what is preventing us from talking to each other? Try shutting down your computers for a day!