How to have hallway conversations when you can’t see the hallway

June 4th, 2012 in Business, Career, gnome, mozilla, PlanetGNOME

I recently listened to a talk by Michael Lopp about how to be a great manager.

During his talk, he stressed the importance of hallway conversations. Hallway conversations are informal conversations about projects, goals and status. As Shez says, they are great for bouncing ideas off people you might not normally interact with and just letting them know what you are up to.

Here’s how I do “hallway conversations” while working thousands of miles from my colleagues:

  • Chat informally. While most people will tell you it’s important to have an agenda for every meeting and to stick to it, I think that if you never see your colleagues at the water cooler, you need to build in some time for rambling. Maybe you’ll gripe about the latest project, maybe you’ll share the cool project you’ve been working on with your kids, maybe you’ll just talk about what you had for lunch. Or maybe you’ll have a great shared idea that inspires you to write that blog post that changes the whole project. It’s those relationships that enable you to informally share how you feel about the projects you are working on.
  • Send that trivial piece of feedback. Often I’ll send an irc message or an email that just says “I liked how you did this” or “here’s a piece of feedback I heard about your project”. Sometimes they seem too trivial for an email message. But if I don’t send the email, and I store them all up for the next time we talk in person, I might not send them at all. (I also keep a file where I keep track of things I want to talk to people about next time I interact with them. Things I think are easier to explain via interactive chats.)
  • Keep open channels. If at all possible, have some sort of real time channel where you can reach your colleagues. Best is a something like IRC where you can hang out and have informal chats. But if not a standing room, at least know how to find them via IM or txt messaging.
  • Be available. Be available in as many channels as possible. I’m regularly on irc, Skype, IM, email, txt messaging, Twitter and Yammer. And I try to respond in a timely fashion. Why? Because when someone thinks of something they want to tell you, you don’t want them to have to remember what they had to say until they get back to their desk. Right then, while they are standing in the hallway, you want them to be able to ask you “what do you think about …?” (You also need to make sure you aren’t letting your life be completely interrupt driven, but that’s for a different post.)
  • Get help. Ask others for help. I’ll regularly ask people I talk to what it feels like in the office or what they think about a paritcular project. What the mood is like, what people are talking about. Or I’ll say, “the next time you chat with so-and-so, can you ask him what he thinks about xyz?” I’ll also tell them I’m worried about a particular person or project and ask them to check in for me. After a meeting, I’ll check in with other folks that were at the meeting to share perceptions on how it went.
  • Meet regularly. If there are projects you care about, make sure you meet with the principal people on those projects regularly.
  • Meet in person. GNOME folks go out of their way to attend GUADEC – often taking vacation and time away from their families. It’s an important event because it’s the one time a year when much of the GNOME community gets together. Meeting people you work with in person is invaluable for community building. I love how humor in email makes much more sense after you’ve met someone in person.
  • Ask them. Ask how others are doing, how they are feeling, what’s top of mind, what keeps them up at night, what makes them feel so passionately that they are working at 3am, ask them … you never know what you’ll learn or what you’ll be able to do together.
  • Communicate effectively. I used to say “over communicate” but I now believe you have to communicate effectively. If you publish everything in the world on your blog and nobody reads it, or the important pieces get lost in the noise, you haven’t communicated. But it’s key to make sure people hear what you are worried about and the ideas you have for solving problems.

How do you effectively have hallway conversations when you don’t share a hallway with your colleagues?

2 Responses to “How to have hallway conversations when you can’t see the hallway”

  1. dbt says:

    The other thing that’s really useful, if you can, is to be willing and able to fire up video chat to talk through something when a non-casual conversation starts up on IRC or IM. I’m generally opposed to “meetings” but I think there’s just a tremendous amount of bandwidth in face to face communication.

  2. Thanks for the reminder, Stormy. Just sent this to my Google Summer of Code students.