Organizations are rediscovering the importance of face-to-face interaction.
“That feeling of ‘clicking’ that we all have had when interacting with people might actually have real neural basis.”
In one of her first official acts, newly minted Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had the temerity to suggest that organizations work better when employees come to work. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” read an internal memo leaked in late February. “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”
The outrage from inside Yahoo and from a good portion of the business and academic communities was immediate. Mayer’s notion was derided and chided as simplistic, regressive, baseless and dangerous by many who regard “workplace flexibility” and “work-life balance” to be inviolable tenets of the modern organization. The new policy, they variously charged, was anti-feminist, anti-family, anti-productivity and anti-progress – and it was all about suspicion, control and lack of trust in employees.
When the first volley of vitriol died down, however, a measure of support for the move began to emerge. Yahoo employees seemed to be reassured when it was learned that the new policy was not an across-the-board ban on telecommuting, but rather was specifically targeted at only 200 employees who worked from home full-time. And many business leaders, who had experienced workplace flexibility to be a mixed bag, at best, were not upset to see its portrayal as an unqualified productivity boon questioned. In fact, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly soon thereafter ended his own company’s work-from-anywhere program, saying it was “fundamentally flawed from a leadership perspective.”
Although there are valid points on both sides of the flexibility debate, it is likely that Mayer’s decision had less to do with changing a specific policy than with beginning to change a culture – one that former and current Yahoo employees had depicted as aimless, demoralizing, bloated and less and less competitive. Very simply, Mayer had concluded that restoring Yahoo would be difficult if employees were not there, that success was going to depend first and foremost on having the critical mass necessary to turn the ship around. The route back, she was betting, would be guided primarily by face-to-face interactions.
She’s not alone. According to Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and communication professional Michael Slind, authors of “Talk, Inc.,” companies seeking to regain or retain their competitive footing are increasingly returning to a culture of conversation to replace more distant modes of corporate communication. “Consider that one hallmark of a high-performing small company is the eminently conversational mode in which its people operate,” they wrote. “Physical proximity and open culture allow people to share key insights and data, and information moves freely and efficiently in multiple directions.”
Groysberg and Slind’s research consisted of interviews with more than 150 senior executives at more than 100 organizations of all types. “We were struck by how often that word ‘conversation’ kept popping up,” said Slind. “CEOs, especially, talked about creating a culture in which the communication resembles the way two friends would talk.”
The authors call that “organizational conversation” – cascading information and ideas throughout an organization by emphasizing the hallmarks of face-to-face interaction: intimacy, interactivity, inclusiveness and intent. They offer numerous examples of companies – such as Cisco Systems, EMC and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. – that have adopted such an approach to recapture the nimbleness and cohesiveness of a small company. “Conversation-like practices enable a company to achieve higher degrees of trust, improved operational efficiency, greater motivation and commitment among employees, and better coordination between top-level strategy and frontline execution,” said Groysberg.
In Groysberg and Slind’s view, “conversation-like practices” include, of necessity, the various forms of technologically enabled communication that have become an inextricable part of the corporate landscape – blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, Web-enabled video chat and so on – but the authors are quick to point out that those tools merely mimic conversation.
In truth, the use of communication technologies is no substitute for face-to-face human interaction. No matter how sophisticated the technology, it cannot match conversation’s immediacy, focus and rich array of non-verbal dynamics – gestures, body language, facial expression, eye contact, voice rhythm, timbre and intonation, and even touch. The verbal and non-verbal elements of conversation inform one another. To remove any, even in part, is to delete information from the exchange.
There is a pas de deux quality to a real conversation. It is co-created and syncopated, requiring instantaneous processing and microadaptations. In a 2010 study, Princeton University researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging found that verbal communication is a kind of mind-melding process that facilitates understanding. The scans showed “joint, temporally coupled, response patterns,” meaning that similar areas of the brains of both speakers and listeners fired nearly simultaneously during conversation, usually with a slight lag for the listener. Some listeners’ brain cells even fired slightly ahead of the speakers’, indicating they were actively anticipating and adjusting to where the conversation was headed.
According to physicist Greg J. Stephens, the lead author of the study, that kind of neural coupling emerges only in a shared conversation. And the stronger the coupling, the better the communication. “That feeling of ‘clicking’ that we all have had when interacting with people might actually have real neural basis,” said Stephens. The findings added weight to the theory that our “mirror” neurons, which activate vicariously when we watch someone else perform an action, are the foundation of the human capacity for empathy, rapport and social organization. Mirroring is believed to be the way in which the brain automatically interprets the actions, intentions and emotions of other people – what scientists call constructing a “theory of mind.”
Face-to-face conversation also tends to be more narrative, more like storytelling, than other modes of communication, and that offers further opportunity to engage and understand other points of view. In a 2011 study by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University, brain scan analysis showed a substantial overlap between the brain networks used to understand stories and those used to construct a theory of mind.
All of this, it would seem, points to the elemental importance of being there when engaging in a collaborative endeavor. In their 2009 paper, “Brain Basis of Human Social Interaction,” Riitta Hari and Miiamaaria Kujala, professors at Helsinki University of Technology’s Brain Research Unit, wrote: “We live in a world where most of our daily environment is made or affected by other humans. Other human beings differ from all other ‘stimuli’ by their great similarity to the perceivers themselves. Actions, as such, create an inter-subjective reality comprising bonding, intentions, attitudes and meanings. Language further expands the shared world. Verbalizations, including stories and narratives, work as advanced cognitive tools that guide thinking.”
Viewed in that light, Marissa Mayer’s “come back to work” edict does not appear to be a regressive attempt to punish or control Yahoo employees, but rather a reasonable requirement that they take a more active part in shaping the company’s – and one another’s – future.