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We have underestimated the importance of the sidebar conversation. In the business world, people have stopped talking to each other. But it is not because they are from a different generation or have different political views. The reason is that they work from home. The precious time spent with one another before or after meetings is where ideas used to be shared. Friendships were built. Conversations were more than about the next project.

In the digital age of teleworking, is it time to re-think the importance of the sidebar conversation?

What is a sidebar?

Sidebar conversations are where relationships are built before and after meetings. They help build trust and understanding and allow for better decision-making. A sidebar conversation is any informal, unplanned side discussion during a meeting. They are frequently used in team meetings or brainstorming. They allow more ideas to be expressed than the time allocated to the regular meeting.

Sidebar conversations can become very important when people meet for an initial discussion. Sidebar conversations are the small talk that naturally occurs before or after meetings. They can be used to build relationships among people, learn about their interests, and understand their motivations. These informal discussions foster creativity and allow for deeper reflection on topics being discussed in the meeting.

When was the last time you had a sidebar conversation? Like most, it has been too long since your previous sidebar chat before a meeting, over coffee, lunch, or drinks. But now, team members are across town or on different continents. That socializing has been replaced by e-mails, instant messages, social media, and video conferencing. In the digital age, it is easy to tap into someone’s enthusiasm or thoughts from anywhere around the globe. This has led to a focus on virtual business relationships instead of personal connections.

The sidebar conversation was where we expressed new ideas. However, those sidebars are where ideas used to be shared before and after meetings. Perhaps we subconsciously wanted to vet ideas to a friend before bringing them to the entire workgroup.

It’s easy to forget the richness of the sidebar conversation when you don’t have face-to-face time. It becomes easier to jump on an idea and dissect it with a digital scalpel than the face-to-face encouragement we give one another. But when everyone is virtually present in a meeting, some of the personal creativity we all shared is beginning to wane.

This is how creative ideas die. Not because they were not great, but because we didn’t engage in the sidebar conversations where we encouraged creativity. Mostly out of fear of showing too much enthusiasm about an idea that isn’t yet fully formed.

Great ideas, just like tree seeds, need time to grow and develop through encouragement from people who care for the well-being of the overall forest. This is where empathy comes in. To encourage others to feel safe sharing their thoughts, even if they are not fully formed.

So the real question becomes, how can we build connections and safety in a digital environment? How can we build empathy for the ideas of others?

How to create a digital sidebar:

Organizations must emulate the safety of the sidebar conversation. This means providing time for people to bounce ideas off one another outside of meetings, encourage new ones and engage in face-to-face discussions without a plan.

And what better place than during office hours? Yes…office hours have a whole new meaning! Office hours can create a dialogue between staff and their peers. This is where brainstorming ideas, the sidetracking into something completely different or even uncomfortable, happens. And this is where new ideas are born! In the digital office hours landscape, schedule time on your calendar labeled “office hours.” The time signals to others that you are free for random phone calls, video conferencing, or other virtual distractions.

Create guidelines for your group that encourage the atmosphere of the sidebar conversation.

  • Create an office hours badge on your avatar or social profile to signal others when you are available
  • Make it OK to schedule blocks of time on someone’s calendar so they can be interrupted during random times
  • Leave yourself open for random virtual sidebars that could turn into something amazing

The digital golf course

Since virtual teams are becoming more common, what does that mean for business relationships? There is no digital golf course. The golf course used to be where deals were made. Not the board room.

In the digital age, it is time to re-think the importance of the sidebar conversation. We must fight for digital interactions, even if it comes down to scheduling it on our calendars just to have a relaxed chat with team members. Without that socializing and non-business conversation, we will lose something in the personal dynamics of business. If we remove that part of human behavior, we all lose, regardless of what our social media friends say. (And social media friends are not the same as your organizational ones.)

This is where empathy can come into play. The idea of empathy isn’t just about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes…it’s also understanding what we lose without those sidebars and how our relationships suffer because of it.

Having the ability to digitally collaborate could be the ‘it’ factor that drives your organization into the future, but only if you engage in conversations that matter. So let the digital age take us back to the basics of relationship building. Schedule time on your calendar that allows for random sidebars with your peers just like you would on the golf course.

Conclusion

We all need to find ways to make our lives more meaningful and fulfilling. And sometimes, that requires stepping out of your comfort zone or trying something new. Enter the digital sidebar. It provides a space for people who share common interests or goals to talk about their ideas without fear of judgment while also getting some advice from others on potential pitfalls they may encounter along the way. This type of dialogue can help us see things differently–and provide motivation when we don’t think there’s any left inside ourselves. It may seem like an odd thing to do. But, building time in your calendar in which you encourage interruption may be the very thing that sets you apart from other managers.