Managing the flow of ideas in a pandemic


MIT Sloan Management Review

MIT Sloan Management Review 

By Alex 'Sandy' Pentland

Most organizations are hierarchical or centralized, so their senior leaders are at the center. All roads lead to them. The leaders are typically older and have more health conditions. During a pandemic, like the one we now face with COVID-19, standard organizational structures are a management disaster in the making—because the senior people are likely to be the hardest hit.

We’ve all learned about the value of social distancing in reducing the spread of infection. In the workplace, physical separation often means going virtual, and we have plenty of tools for that. But given that ideas and decision-making flow primarily to and from the central (senior) people, the essential work of preventing the spread of illness can pose risks to the also essential work of running an organization. That’s true in part because informal conversations (such as ad hoc chats in hallways or while getting coffee) account for about half of decision quality. So if we try to rely on the usual flows of ideas and decisions in a primarily virtual arena, quality can degrade. It’s a wicked problem with no simple solution.

So how do you minimize the spread of illness while maintaining the flow of ideas necessary in a high-performance organization—and simultaneously preserve mental health, trust, and solidarity? This article highlights a few often complementary tactics and tools that we have at our disposal. Some that I mention by name are spinoffs from my MIT lab, but they are merely examples in a category where many options exist.

Maximize Idea Flow

When in-person contact is greatly reduced, we have far fewer of the usual physical cues (body posture, facial expressions, and so on) to help guide our decisions and behavior. But we still need to feel connected—that we can reach out in genuine ways to other people and that they can reach out to us. This authentic two-way interaction is crucial not only for mental health but also for the free flow of ideas.

One way for leaders to assess whether authentic, productive, rewarding interactions are continuing to happen is to measure them continuously. That means tracking patterns of digital communication—along with physical contact and exposure—and trying to balance them in order to maximize idea flow and minimize virus spread.

For instance, the company Humanyze measures your organization’s teleconference, phone, and email pathways but for privacy reasons does not look at the content. Then it produces a graph that roughly describes the idea flow in your organization—showing when employees are not engaged, which groups are very cohesive, and where bottlenecks exist. The information offers opportunities to tweak communication pathways, collaborative structures, and other systems that sustain the flow of ideas. Such tweaks will become increasingly important as people’s schedules and modes of work change during the coming weeks and months.

Lower the Social Cost

Unlike asking “Does everybody agree?” at an in-person (or even a video) meeting, decision-making tools such as secret voting reduce the social cost of expressing an opposing viewpoint. Loud voices that squelch those of others are less likely to rule the day, thereby building a broader base of trust by signaling that all participants’ opinions matter.

Riff Analytics, which analyzes videoconferences in real time, subtly reminds people not to interrupt or talk over others. Its AI-driven “nudges” (in the form of feedback graphics and private chat messages) encourage extroverts not to dominate conversations as often and introverts to feel less alienated. When everyone feels heard, the sense of belonging to the group increases and decision-making improves.

Tools from Cogito listen to the tone of voice (but not the words) during call-center interactions and also remind staff when they are supposed to say something, are talking too much, or raise their voice. The reminders improve customer engagement but have an even greater positive effect on employee stress levels and turnover rates. Cogito’s tools also can be deployed to analyze verbal communication within companies.

Reward the Flow

To foster solidarity, try an idea market, where people can post ideas and win rewards when other folks endorse those ideas. Research suggests that idea markets are not an optimal way to actually make decisions but are a pretty good means of uncovering what’s happening in your organization, hearing concerns, and (if done well) finding out whether people feel that their ideas are being heard and used.

You can also deploy the concept of peer rewards more broadly. Once a week, have people in a work group vote (by secret ballot) for the team member they think has been most helpful or emotionally supportive. Then give the winner a paycheck bonus (but ensure that no one can win twice in a month, to avoid popularity contests). Peer rewards signal to the winner, “The people I work with value what I’m doing.” Social rewards have been shown to improve trust and solidarity in work groups—something we especially need when physically apart from one another.

Bolster Connection, Minimize Direct Contact

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the concept of “flu buddies” took root. The idea: Just like kids have buddies at camp or school, you pair up with someone remotely for regular communication (often by video) when you’re sick (or under quarantine) at home. You and your buddy can discuss business if you wish, but mostly you share things like how you’re keeping the kids entertained while you work from home and they’re not in school, how you’re staying safe, and anything else that strengthens social bonds.

Encourage people to choose their own buddies, give them time to touch base with each other, and reward them for that behavior in whatever nonmonetary ways suit your work culture. For instance, instead of snacks in a common area (which you might use in a normal office environment), have video “buddy chat time” count as working hours or accrue points toward treats delivered to employees’ homes.

Strong evidence shows that such sharing between people bolsters mental health and that having a specific person to turn to in a time of need or crisis is especially helpful. Promoting regular human connection when physical contact must be minimized can go a long way toward maintaining the social support any organization requires.

To promote mental health specifically, Ginger offers full-stack support services. It guarantees that within just 60 seconds of texting the service, you’re getting real-time coaching from a human and having a conversation about what’s bothering you. The aim is to mitigate depressive feelings and other negative emotions, and major companies are using Ginger for their entire workforce. Services like these are especially valuable in times of crisis, when in-person support from colleagues and even health care professionals is less readily available.

Medically recommended social distancing to slow the spread of illness, along with hygiene practices, are crucial for our physical health. But we also need to recognize the effects of distancing on mental health, trust, and solidarity within the organizations whose activities help to sustain our livelihoods and our sense of purpose. We still must maintain the flow of ideas and maximize effective decision-making at a time when our organizations and the people within them are more widely dispersed than ever.

As leaders and managers help people execute on an organization’s long-term vision and strategy, we must deploy tools that help us tweak our habits to adapt to the new realities. I hope that by sharing my ideas here and highlighting a few pertinent tools and tactics, I’m doing my part to contribute to this rapidly evolving effort.

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