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Life on Mars

Optimize Blog - February 2, 2011 - 0 comments

In a recent general communication, Council staff in Carlisle (a town in the North of England) were instructed to clock-out if they want to talk about the weather, holidays or babies. The e-mail message, which was sent to 31 workers by two team leaders in the city’s Revenue & Benefits Department, also warned staff not to treat work like a “holiday camp”.
Dr Jason Gooding, Carlisle City Council’s deputy chief executive, said the matter was an “isolated incident” and lessons would be learned. He said: “On this occasion the approach to managing staff has fallen a little short of the high standards the city council has rightly come to expect of its team leaders and managers”. Just a little? Really?
He went on to say “Discussions on performance and capability should generally be conducted face to face with the relevant members of staff – not through general e-mail communication in this way. We will be working with managers and staff in Revenues and Benefits to ensure that positive lessons are learned following this experience”.
Apparently the email went on to say “In order to ensure maximum output is produced, the working ethos within the office will need to change. Staff should be aware of the reason why they are here, which is to work and not to treat the office as a day-to-day holiday camp… It is not a requirement for you not to talk to your fellow colleagues, but you should ensure that non-work conversations are kept to a minimum”. Splendid. It’s good to know that talking to each other is not actually being banned too.
Despite the sarcasm, it is clear that some form of inappropriate behaviour caused the team leaders to feel the need to address the situation but equally as clearly this is not the way to go about it.
Now, here at Zeitgeist we talk a lot about communication (the pun in this case very much intended) and as we have said before, ‘internal communication’ is invariably the number one issue highlighted during the organizational diagnostics exercises we undertake for our clients. The Carlisle event is a stark reminder of how to get communication very wrong and is perhaps inexcusable. Imagine then the communication challenges within the Mars500 project – currently being run by Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems with the participation of the European Space Agency (ESA).
The project is attempting to replicate on Earth the demands that a trip to Mars would place on a spaceship crew – focusing on both the physical and psychological impacts.
The crew comprises three Russians, two EU citizens and a Chinese national. For eight months, the group has worked together inside a closed facility which has no windows and a total interior volume of about 550 cubic metres (19,423 cubic feet). They are not ‘back to Earth’ until November this year.
Although the Mars500 experiment has not been able to simulate the constant weightlessness of a genuine eight-month journey through space, it has been able to introduce one important realism – that of a perpetual time delay in the communications between the crew and their ground controllers outside the modules.
Messages take 20 minutes to pass between the two ends of the link, similar to the lag radio messages travelling the great distance between Mars and Earth would come up against. Now back on earth we have real time communication which, when compared to the situation facing the Mars500 space crew is a luxury. As leaders and managers, perhaps we should recognize that ability to be able to communicate immediately and avoid letting things fester – deal with them straight away but pick the right tools with which to do it.
In the Carlisle case are all 31 members of the department guilty of the implied ‘misdemeanor’ or was the blanket email really just aimed at a few… with the leaders taking the easier route to avoid having difficult face to face conversations with the ones causing the problem? The point is that email can be a good way to share information but it is often not an effective form of communication.
Face-to-face meetings or telephone conversations demand attention in a way which emails on a computer do not. Perhaps in the Carlisle incident a team meeting to share the concerns and agree how to move forward would have been a better option. It certainly would be less newsworthy and ultimately more effective. In this case taking the easy route was not the route to a successful outcome.

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