By Jeremy Caplan, freelance writer
Pity the poor office planner. In an era of cost-cutting, they’re expected to save money by trimming luxurious office amenities and other suspect expenses. But some of those “dubious” expenses might otherwise be viewed as valuable investments in a corporate culture that prizes talent retention and terrific internal communication.
To improve the flow of ideas within company walls, businesses are experimenting with new ways to break down communication barriers.
It’s not always the conventional solutions that work best, says Jeanne O’Connor, director of human resources for Billtrust, which works with companies to outsource billing. Open office setups, for example, are popular, but may not always lead to productivity gains, she says. “Putting everybody out in the open is like force-feeding collaboration,” says O’Connor. “Collaboration comes in ways that are less obvious.”
Here are a few steps companies small, medium and large are taking to sharpen internal communication.
Play Together, Don’t Just Work Together
One approach is to foster teamwork by encouraging employees to play, lounge and eat together when they’re not working together. Google employees famously spend time playing together at work. Everything is fair game, from beach volleyball and Frisbee to video games and Legos.
At Billtrust, collaborative gaming meant running an internal Summer Olympics competition last year in parallel with the real Olympics in London. Bookended by opening and closing ceremonies at the office that mirrored the festivities in the U.K., Billtrust employees earned medals for competing in ring toss, ping pong and Wii fencing.
O’Connor says group games can help melt boundaries between work teammates who may not know each other well. “If you’re going to spend a lot of time with the same people, you better like them,” she says.
Variations on Email
Given that most internal communication happens digitally, it’s become crucial for companies to think smarter about how they foster fruitful online dialogue. The idea of “no e-mail Fridays” has gone out of vogue as companies realize they can’t shut off the internal email fire hose.
But with a growing number of workers struggling to climb out from email overload, which saps 28 percent of work time according to a McKinsey study, HR teams are rethinking communication norms. Billtrust employees use both Yammer and Skype to stay in touch without relying exclusively on email. That empowers those outside the office to stay connected from afar.
Frequent video conferencing also prevents misunderstandings that can arise when people quickly trade ideas and info in short bursts of text. Communication nuances can be harder to pick up in email than when you can look someone in the eye, even if that eye contact is taking place through a computer screen.
Think Beyond Departments
Sticking product managers together or lumping marketers into an office clump may seem logical to anyone used to such silos. But increasingly, office planners are thinking about seating teams together according to the clients they serve, rather than by job function. That means a customer service agent can share product feedback quickly and easily with a nearby marketing colleague, for example, while a nearby developer adds input about a possible technical solution.
As it reconfigures its Hamilton, N.J., office space, Billtrust is considering ways to preserve personal workspaces alongside shared common areas where people can gather in small groups to work together or socialize.
The company is also considering an open online suggestion box to foster honest feedback about workplace adjustments that might improve internal communication. If employees at the top of the corporate totem pole implement suggestions by those further down, it increases the chances the best ideas will bubble up. And, lower-level employees are also more likely to feel that their voices are valued. Isn’t that what great internal communication is all about?
This post originally appeared on Forbes.