In Praise of Face Time

water coolerAlmost all work these days is distributed — people interact with one other to make sales and process orders from different locations, for instance. To keep everyone up-to-date, particularly across departments and functions, employees use electronic tools (e-mail, voice mail, conference calls, instant messaging, and social media). In our virtual world, working face-to-face is increasingly rare.

Does being together physically matter anymore in today’s increasingly virtual world of work?

Consider Constellation Energy, a $14 billion dollar provider of power, natural gas, and energy products and services based in Baltimore. Constellation has developed an Innovation Center, an unconventional permanent facility within its headquarters. People come from different locations to the Innovation Center for “ideation” (brainstorming), decision-making, and planning. For example, one team that came to the Innovation Center worked on a merger after an acquisition; hundreds of thousands of dollars were saved from moving a data center. By having groups from headquarters and the acquired company come together in one place, they were able to break down barriers and begin to work together effectively.

These activities require the kind of cross-organizational collaboration that is unnatural and difficult to sustain. The Innovation Center helps people break down boundaries and encourages openness, frankness, and honesty. It helps align different groups around shared goals.

What’s distinctive about having a physical innovation center? According to Howard Tiersky, President of consulting firm Moving Interactive, which helped set up Constellation’s Innovation Center:

  • It’s an emblem. It demonstrates a commitment to innovation. It sends a message.
  • When you have a facility, you’re apt to use it more, to do more innovation. More of your organization is exposed to that process.
  • The facility helps make sure time together is well used. Management disciplines and behaviors are built into the facility, and these behaviors define a culture and are a way to change a culture. It has introduced playfulness, willingness to take risks, and a collaborative style. It’s a positive virus. It has affected the way that people work beyond the walls. For example, in the sessions we use a “picture the future” exercise: it’s 2014 and the Harvard Business Review is writing an article about how successful we’ve been, and we brainstorm about what we need to do now to achieve that picture. People have taken this “picture the future” exercise outside of the Innovation Center and used in their planning activities.”

In a similar way, some companies have implemented “daily huddles” and “rounding” as ways to bring everyone together face-to-face to review operations, share information, and solve problems. Consider McLeod Health, a community hospital in Florence, South Carolina, with 400 physicians, 1,400 nurses, 4,700 employees, and 616 beds. Early improvement work at McLeod focused on clinical effectiveness, things like pneumonia and congestive heart failure. They met their goals and achieved national recognition. But according to Marie Segars, who is a senior vice president of McLeod, responsible for the day-to-day operations, there was still something missing:

It only got us 95% of the way there. That last 5% was stuff that gets in the way, such as poor handoffs. My interest is the secrets to sustainability. In my work, that’s the hardest part. If you take your eye off, there is sliding back. How do you stabilize and make daily improvement? It can’t be divorced from the day-to-day work. It includes visual management — boards that track performance on key measures so people know that you’re still paying attention.
We meet every morning at 8:30 outside my office and review my board in administration. The board has things like census target, daily admissions, month-to-date average, year-to-date versus target, how many days since last cardiac code outside of an Intensive Care Unit, how many days without a hospital diversion. Our Patient Satisfaction target this year is to be above the 95th percentile in 24 or more measures and no more than six measures below the 50th percentile. We go over the metrics in about 4 minutes, and then the VPs do “patient rounding” — they go out to the departments to look for the things we’ve discussed. For example, one nursing unit is working on discharge folders, and the executives can check the status on their board and then go to the patient to see whether every patient has a discharge folder in order. Each executive visits two patients. It includes all the administrative VPs, the CFO, chief medical officer, and the chief nursing officer. We then report back to the staffing area we visited on what is working and what isn’t working. We’re usually done by 9:05. We’ve been doing it for seven years. The staff was cautious at first. Now they love it.

As Constellation Energy and McLeod Health show, face-to-face interactions still have an important role to play in driving performance in our increasingly virtual world. But you need to carve out some time to get out of your office, to work across departments and hierarchies with the people doing the work.

Question: How are you using face-to-face interactions in our increasingly virtual world?

This article first appeared on the Harvard Business Review and has been lightly edited.

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Categories: Energy, Healthcare, Workplace Reality

Author:Brad Power

Brad is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management. He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Institute.

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4 Comments on “In Praise of Face Time”

  1. December 28, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    The benefits of face time are well understood.

    Given the huge cost difference between e-meetings and face-to-face meetings, it’s not easy for small decentralized organizations to decide what to use one versus the other.

    • December 29, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

      The cost in travel is clear in financial terms, and so the open question is the benefits. The benefits may be well understood, but harder to quantify in financial terms. If, as in the example, there is a decision to be made that has large potential payback, then the benefits may be clear and justify a face-to-face meeting. If the benefits are squishier, like building team relationships, then the decision can be harder.

  2. December 31, 2012 at 7:42 am #

    This Christmas, I gave myself a present by upgrading to the new iPhone 5 and while I was at it, I thought what the heck and I upgraded the phones for both my sons, ages 11 and 14. Needless to say both boys were rather excited to find a new iPhone 5 under the tree! OK, I was a bit giddy with my new device too.

    I’m a half time single parent and my boys split their time between my house and their mom’s house. My two boys are my BFF’s and on the nights they aren’t with me, it can sometimes be lonely but I speak with them every night on the phone. But now, with their new iPhone’s, FaceTime has changed everything in our nightly communications!

    Before we all had FaceTime, a typical conversation at night might go something like this:

    Me to Son age 14: “how was school today”

    Response from Son age 14: “good”

    Me to Son age 14: “what did you do after school today”

    Response from Son age 14: “Nothin”

    You get the idea…I always found it a struggle to really connect with a teenager over the phone and the same thing would happen with my younger son. And these conversations repeated over and over and over again and would last maybe 5 minutes each.

    But now, we FaceTime each other every night and holy cow, is everything different! Sure, the technology is cool and sort of novel for all of us, but our conversations now last for 20 to 30 minutes. We talk and even sometimes watch a TV show or sports game together, commenting to each other via FaceTime. Our nightly conversations have turned into a real dialogue and I feel much more “connected” even though we aren’t physically together. It’s just so great to be able to see the expressions on their face as we talk about this or that – it really helps me understand what they are feeling.

    Then again, 93% of communication is non-verbal, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve had this revelation!

    • January 1, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

      It seems that videoconferencing should gradually supplant lots of phone (voice only) conversations since the cost will be low, yet it’s higher touch.

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