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It's Good to Talk with Ben Chang

It’s Good to Talk with Ben Chang

Encouraging the expression of personal interests in the workplace requires taking a risk. But there are also rewards.

We often put up barriers between our corporate life and personal pursuits. It is a natural inclination; by keeping the two separate, we find it helps to fulfill the role we are paid to do free from outside distractions. But is there any merit in letting in a little daylight when it comes to expressing, sharing, and even pursuing personal interests in the workplace?

While we know that companies need certain structures in place to function, we also know that good communication and interaction are important elements of a healthy corporate culture. When people become deeply focused on the task at hand, they often narrow down their lines of communication to their closest colleagues. They become insular, and information is not widely shared, reducing overall efficiency and creating friction. Regular meetings, formal or informal, and the introduction of open plan offices, for example, are ways to ensure that broader lines of communication stay open, but by concentrating on the method of delivering communication are we overlooking the content?

When we think of communication at work we naturally focus on process or ideas relating to our roles, so creating a space or structure that encourages us to talk about our personal interests and hobbies may seem counter-productive. There are also risks to consider. For the employee, there’s the risk of removing the protective barrier between private and corporate life that we often feel is needed to avoid being judged on anything but the role we are paid to fulfill. For the company, there’s the risk of introducing non-corporate diversions that could result in a reduction in productivity.

But the benefits are compelling. Encouraging people to talk about and even share their different pursuits outside of the office can allow us to interact on a more human level inside the workplace. It can kickstart a change in company culture for the better by providing an outlet that helps to reduce stress and make the workplace a happier environment. These intangible benefits are increasingly important to the sustainability of modern companies.

A cross fertilization of ideas inside and outside the workplace can also set the tone for a more dynamic company culture. Once we are aware that a colleague in another department writes a blog on environmental causes in their spare time we can leverage this passion by perhaps getting input on a client project that needs an environmental overview. Or simply use a work colleague’s eye for photography or an ear for music to get a totally different perspective on the solution to a problem. Why hire a stranger to DJ the annual company holiday party when one of your very own can lend their artistic talents! By literally having such conversations it allows us to uncover the many additional and undiscovered talents that remain untapped in today’s companies.

On a practical level, good leadership and the introduction of well-thought through enabling structures can provide the framework to allow people to express their interests freely and without prejudice. The exact framework will differ from company to company. It may be a regular brown bag lunch, an off-site activity, or physical space or social area in the office to sit and chat about non-work activities and interests. For some companies linking it in with a mentoring programme may work more effectively. And it is not just about senior staff cultivating more junior colleagues – peer-to-peer relationships are equally important to foster a collaborative atmosphere.

Whatever framework is chosen, it’s only by removing the barriers and opening up to what inspires people will we be able to harness that creativity and foster a more rounded work environment. Staff who are appreciated on a human as well as professional level are not only happier, but also more productive.

View Ben Chang’s talk at TEDx Aix here.

Ben Chang is Senior Vice President for Communications at the Albright Stonebridge Group, having previously worked as a US Diplomat in the Foreign Services and in the White House. Ben is not only a communications expert, but as an accomplished photographer and DJ he firmly believes in the power of expressing individual talent.

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