Working from Home and Phatic Communication

Working from home, being what’s called a remote worker, is a really fascinating frontier of Work. It’s fascinating both because as a paradigm, it creates new challenges, and it also makes visible ways in which more traditional work spaces overcome old challenges.

Working remotely has helped me understand traditional work places much better – if only because in stepping outside of what we see as the usual way of doing business, many of the previously invisible advantages of shared space come into stark relief.

Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently is the idea of phatic conversations – that is, talk whose whole purpose is the talk itself, and not to a larger end (find something out from a colleague, accomplish a shared goal, communicate time away from work.)

I’ve written about communication with remote teams a couple other times lately:

Communicating with Remote Teams: One on Ones

Work from Home but Still Eat with Friends

This term, phatic conversation, is a new one for me, and I should say that I heard it for the first time via a podcast. It was one of those moments when someone else touches on and explains something that immediately brings your own thoughts from a mess into order. This is the thing I’ve been wandering around the outside of.

In a traditional workplace, phatic conversations happen in virtue of being around people, and they serve as a real social lubricant that is mutually beneficial and builds trust and sociability over time.

You have tons of these interactions: not all with colleagues, and not even all verbal. That neighbor that checks the mail at the same time as you? Those nods and waves are phatic communication.

We can even see things like small talk as part of this: when you engage in small talk with a stranger or with someone you’ve known for a long time, part of the purpose of that talk is the talk itself. 

It outlines a safe space. It’s a little back and forth to establish shared norms, we-are-the-same-tribe-right? 

The same is true of colleagues; when a meeting goes long due to some inane banter on an off topic, sharing a joke and a laugh on the way to lunch – this counts, there’s a real value there.

When you work next to someone, in the same building or the same floor, you sort of get phatic conversations for free.

When we think about this concept in a remote environment, where some or all of the folks working in an organization are scattered here and there geographically, this calculus changes.

Remote workers have to get our phatic conversations on purpose – we have to reach out to one another, to grab a virtual coffee or a video-conferenced lunch. It’s really interesting, right? When I was working in more traditional environments, I would have never identified small talk or waiting in line at the copy machine as ways my workplace solved a problem.

Phatic conversations are still important – they grease the wheels and create more shared experiences, and help to humanize folks you maybe don’t work with all that often. This is important!

It’s important not just socially, not just because it’s good to get to know your colleagues for your own sense of belonging and social in-grouping. It’s important because it opens up streams of communication, it gives you and your new connection access to more and different viewpoints and parts of the company (and, if you’re sufficiently distributed, different parts of the world.)

There’s value there – real, demonstrable value for the company or organization. Getting fresh eyes and fresh ears on problems is where innovation comes from. It’s by combining diverse viewpoints that we’re able to approach our problems and obstacles in new and exciting ways.

I have a few scheduled lunches every week where I sit and eat my lunch on camera with someone else (they’re not always eating, time zones means that lunch is relative!) – it’s a really nice way to spend lunch, and I’ve gotten to know folks a lot better this way.

Over the next few months, I’m going to start reaching out to folks specifically to have a coffee, and make it clear that it’s a chat to have a chat. Not people I already count as friends, but really intentionally folks I wouldn’t otherwise ever have face time with.

I don’t want to pull their developers away. I don’t want their designer to work on my project. I just want to have a coffee, to see how their day is going. It feels like this is a way to stoke the fires of serendipity a little, allowing space for unusual combinations to surface and flourish.

If you work in a remote environment, I encourage you to do this, too – it’s just coffee 🙂

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