It's good to gossip, and natter and chat ...

The new management mantra is communication, says Robert Nurden
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It's good to talk - and it's not just BT that says so. Management gurus are now chanting the mantra too. A host of communication competency programmes and huddling-together sessions are starting to turn the silent workplace into a non-stop talking shop.

The initiatives come at a time when the onset of technology, particularly e-mail, is threatening the power of speech in the office. Yet talking, the management consultants argue, is the glue that holds the company together. Any kind of talk is good it seems: from the gossip at the coffee machine to more formal meetings between different levels of staff.

In addition to the crippling effects of modern technology on having a good old natter, is the legacy of the "Work Till You Drop" ethos of the 1980s. It is still prevalent today, with short-term contract work rather than full-time employment, and too many hours.

But younger workers today often see their jobs as part of a broader picture in which their social life has an equal role. They resent working every available hour, want to retain their self-respect and have time to talk to people. And that's where the communal aspect of being at work is making a comeback.

Suddenly, it seems, it's cool to chat. Companies such as Asda, Unilever, British Gas, and Royal Bank of Scotland value team work, and for that to work there must be channels of communication within the workforce, both formal and informal: not just lots of opportunities to chat but "quality" talk too.

The supermarket group, for example, espouses an unashamedly touchy-feely approach to staff communications. Employees in Asda stores and at the head office in Leeds go into daily huddles in which individuals can air their views or have a moan, and in which they are kept informed by their managers of what is happening that day within their sections.

"It helps to bind the team together," said company spokeswoman Elli MacKirdy. "We stress the importance of sharing, and this undoubtedly reduces absenteeism and improves staff morale. The "Tell Archie" suggestion scheme, the most far-reaching of such schemes in Britain, encourages staff to propose ways that stores could be better run and customers better served. Staff whose ideas are taken up by boss Archie Norman's management team are rewarded with star points which lead to a cash bonus or extra holiday. "A lot of ideas are implemented in this way," said Ms MacKirdy.

In colleague circles, held in Asda stores on a regular basis, the views of staff are sought on how conditions can be improved for everyone - when staff pressed for showers to be installed in their changing rooms, the company had them put in within weeks. The list of communication and participation initiatives goes on: general listening groups, talking to management via e-mail, and share ownership plans.

Even the self-employed are finding they can take only so much isolation. "The rise in popularity of teleworking shows we have a real need to communicate with people at work," said Bridget Hodd, an occupational psychologist at Development at Work, a consultancy. "There is a limit to how much time people can take working at home alone."

In some companies these days there is less contact than people want. The new technologies have not so much reduced communication - indeed it has increased the ways in which we can keep in touch - rather they have made face-to-face communication harder to achieve, and changed the way we talk. Facial and tonal clues are lacking in e-mail and it only produces a kind of one-dimensional rapport.

Ms Hodd suggested that e-mail was also often used as a substitute for good management, which was unsatisfactory because less consideration is given to writing e-mails that letters and faxes, which are re-read by the sender for correct meaning. People need to get out, "press the flesh", and make contact again because those personal skills were in danger of being lost, she said.

The smoking room at work is becoming the one area in which views can be exchanged freely. People may even be tempted to take up smoking just so they can keep up with what is going on in a company, suggests Ms Hodd. "I have evidence of serious resentment arising between smokers and non- smokers because of the amount of time it takes to slope off and have a cigarette.

"Quality of communication, not just quantity, is important too. In the search for a science of talk, some management consultancies, are breaking down communication into its component parts. The Item Group, for example,has identified the core skills common to every effective piece of dialogue and then tutors its students in these aspects.

There is, according to the group, the opening, in which any conversation is started; then comes the transmitting, in which the message is conveyed; the receiving and sensing in which the message is listened to; the reflecting and responding, which is a period of thinking and answering; and exiting, when the conversation is finished.

"We have become so poor at communicating naturally," said Sheila Hirst, director of employee communications at Item, "that we need to analyse what is going on in speech in order for us to get people back to what they once instinctively knew." As one middle manager said: "If we don't re-learn how to talk with each other, frequently and on a meaningful level, this organisation won't survive." He's probably right.