Yesterday I met up with four old school friends for dinner. It was lovely. These are all intelligent, professional women and I’ve known them for over thirty years. But getting all of us in a room together only happens once a year, or less. And every time we try to catch up on what each has been up to – job changes, what children are doing, how parents are, what’s happening in our lives.
When I left last night it occurred to me that if we only updated each other more frequently, we’d actually have better and more satisfying conversations, rather than having to rush through the last 18 months’ activities like a kind of round robin letter, or explain again what it is we all actually do in our working lives. If we’d seen the updates, and been following each other even loosely, we wouldn’t have to waste the precious little face-to-face time we do have. Plus we’d have been aware of the life-enhancing or difficult moments that we’d been facing as they happened, and been able to comment, share in or show we were listening in some way.
What I’m describing of course is just what social tools offer. I’ve a pretty good idea what my nephews and nieces get up to – boyfriends, work trips, new jobs, good news or bad days, because we’re connected on Facebook. I don’t hang on (or even see) their every update, and I rarely have conversations with them, but we all get the gist of what we’re up to and we stay connected, so that when we meet at family weddings we’re not strangers (which was always the case when I was growing up, having little contact with family members outside of those kinds of event.) But my schoolfriends don’t use Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to blogs. And there’s nothing social about emails.
What we lack is the constant, consistent low-level form of updating, running in the background, there to jump into or ignore at will. And it’s one of the key things social tools offer to employees in large organisations – the possibility of staying updated with what colleagues are doing, what they’re interested in, what thorny issues they are facing – particularly if they’re working in another country, in a different department or even in your own building, and even if you’ve never met them. But in a non-intrusive, backgrounded way.
It might be that you see each other’s updates and realise someone else is trying to solve the same issue you have faced, or they’re looking for knowledge or expertise you possess, or know someone who does, so you’re able to connect them, and so the network grows. It may be you feel an affinity with them because you share an interest outside of work. It could be any of these things, or other things.
But when you finally get round the same table, or find yourselves in the same workgroup, you don’t have to waste time with the preliminaries – you already know them, or at least enough about them to feel confortable in their company, and able to get down to business. You probably already have ideas, are quicker to develop a working rapport and come up with innovative solutions. It’s not a question of letting social get in the way of work relationships, it actually enhances them and create connections where there were none. It doesn’t have to be full on socialising. It’s just the background noise you can choose to dip into or not. But I think it can make a huge difference to the quality and efficiency of face-to-face communication.