Office culture has changed more in one year than in the last few decades. A few years ago, I shared some research on maximizing brief interactions between managers and team members. Today, my emphasis is much different because the challenges managers face in a virtual environment are much different. Back then, I was searching for ways to make interactions more efficient—and brief. Today, my emphasis is on making interactions more engaging and personal.

In 1980, Henry Mintzberg authored a book called The Nature of Managerial Work. He noted that managerial activity was characterized by its enormous variety, that it consisted of a series of relatively brief interactions, and that it was incredibly fragmented. He observed that phone calls averaged less than 6 minutes. Typical “one-on-one” meetings averaged 12 minutes.  If Mintzberg were to repeat that research today, most of us would guess that phone calls and meetings have grown more frequent, conversations are even shorter, and the pace has become more hectic still. I doubt most leaders can find half-hours of uninterrupted time in their day.

Interactions at the Workplace are Briefer Than Ever Before

The hectic pace would have the potential to work if being a good collaborator and team player didn’t present the need for frequent interactions with others, but it does. And being a good boss means that people have access to you.  

Our current situation is exposing several pitfalls.  One is that it can have the manager or leader revert to their old ways, often being an individual contributor. They are doing the work rather than managing the work.

Another challenge is that subordinates are often reluctant to call their boss unless it is a really urgent or extremely important issue. That means that the boss must largely initiate the casual or informal connections, that used to occur in the lunchroom or hallway, or they won’t happen. Yet, the fundamental bedrock of leadership has not changed. Your influence is directly proportional to the quality and frequency of the connections you make throughout the day.

So what can you do? Here are a few of the ideas I recommend:

1. Define the pace and purpose when you initiate the conversation.

In normal times, when you drop by someone’s office, you can remain standing, and after exchanging a couple of remarks, you might express appreciation or note some of the recent efforts they have put into their work. That conversation needn’t take long, but it can go a long way in building strong relationships.  That same approach can be used on a telephone or Zoom call. But the purpose of interactions is not solely to answer a question or solve a problem but to stay connected with the other person.  “What good things are happening with your family?”. “What are you doing for fun in these challenging days.” Our research clearly shows that the best leaders are connecting on a human level with their colleagues. 

Another meaningful conversation you could have with others involves staying informed about the organization. It used to be that you could stop by someone’s office and say, “ I would like to hear what good things are happening in your area,” or you can ask, ” Tell me something you think I don’t know and maybe don’t want to hear.” These conversations don’t have to belong, and if you are in the driver’s seat, you can make them happen at a relatively brisk pace. In today’s “working remotely world,” you need to stay connected and informed, but it is now more difficult.

2. Others’ conversations can be softly guided.

Again, during normal times there are occasions when someone will come to your office and want to have a laid-back chat, and you can respectively hasten the pace of that conversation. One approach is standing up and, therefore, signaling you are short on time. Better still is honestly informing them that you have a time constraint and let them know at the beginning of the conversation how much time you have to talk or whether it should be scheduled later.

Most of the time, these interactions can last one or two minutes, and the meeting is over. Help others get to the heart of the matter and let them know you respect their time and you want them to respect yours. But, especially in today’s COVID circumstances, make certain that every interaction has a positive outcome. 

3. Set expectations with your workforce.

Employees appreciate consistency. Whatever way you consistently choose to push conversations forward will help them to be better prepared. For example, if they drop by your office with a question or a problem, and the first question out of your mouth is going to be, “What do you think? What have you considered? What strikes you as the best way to go?” That will accelerate a conversation. If they know you will ask for a very clear statement of what they need and want from you, it won’t take many such conversations for them to realize they should come with a proposed solution in mind.

4. Even very short scheduled meetings can be very effective.

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This is one of C. Northcote Parkinson’s famous laws. Typically, we find if we say a project is going to take two weeks, that is how long it takes. Something will get done early on a rare occasion, but usually, we take the full amount of time allotted.

The same principle of Parkinson’s can be applied to meetings. A meeting will expand to fill the time allocated for it. Try scheduling shorter meetings and see how much can be achieved in a shorter time. Even a 5 min meeting can be effective when people come prepared. But again, in our pandemic world, meetings seem to serve a dual purpose of being a vehicle to get things accomplished and as a time for people to connect on a human level.

5. Improve meeting effectiveness.

One of the most frequent written complaints people make to their bosses in our 360-degree assessments is about their meetings’ quality.

The problems range from meetings with no agenda to meetings with no purpose,  collaboration,  prior preparation, nor background materials sent in advance. Set an example for your colleagues by conducting brief but effective meetings. Zoom, Teams, Web-Ex, or Skype meetings can be treacherous because one person can sabotage it by making negative remarks or taking an undue amount of time. Subtle, non-verbal cues that get exchanged in an in-person meeting are not as obvious on Zoom calls.

In Conclusion

I encourage you to not only improve your brief interactions but also increase them. It has been a trying year for everyone, and most individuals are suffering and craving positive human interactions more than we have in the past. Take the initiative and check in with your team members or send them a message with positive feedback on their performance. These brief interactions go a long way to promote a progressive environment among your coworkers, whether you’re online or 6 feet apart.

These conversations can be beneficial, positive, and short. On the other hand, don’t have people avoid you because they don’t want to hear a 45-minute monologue on whatever topic is being discussed. Emotions are contagious, so make your interactions and meetings consistently positive. Using various approaches, you can make an extremely powerful and positive impact through an ongoing stream of brief, engaging, and personal interactions.