The Power of Language in a Social Workplace

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Peter A. Bacevice, PhD – Senior Design Strategist, HLW

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Philadelphia.  This annual conference of scholars and researchers from business schools and practitioners from different industries offers an opportunity to engage in rich discussions about organizations, their people, and their practices.  This year’s theme “The Power of Words” offered some particularly salient takeaways for understanding how a company’s work environment embodies the organization’s own language and how it acts as a live feed into its ongoing routines.

 

How the Language Social Media Feeds the Flow of Business

One particularly interesting session I attended was on the way in which companies increasingly use social media as a real-time tool for making sense of the rapidly changing world around it and as a way to signal its own voice in that milieu.  Companies engage in a two-way process of “sense-making” and “sense-giving” through the use of various visual and textual social media platforms. Whether it’s a financial news organization tracking analysts on Twitter or whether it’s a fashion retailer tracking what tastes are trending on Pinterest, social media offers a live feed into innumerable trends and events. These same platforms also give companies the opportunity to weigh into these same conversations and to signal to their followers and business partners that “they get it” and that they have a critical viewpoint or response on key matters of importance.

 

The Language of Workplace Feeds Real-Time Operations

While social media is one tool that uses words in powerful ways for the giving and receiving of information and meaning, the work environment is an equally powerful tool that has its own unique language for doing something very similar. If we imagine back in the day before electronic social media was the source of our information, we relied on a buzz around the office to learn about what was happening in the world. Now, social media is increasingly designed into the backdrop of the workplace and is shaping the new language of our work environment.

The workspace of JetBlue Airways in Long Island City, Queens, is a particularly interesting example of how the juxtaposition of old fashioned employee buzz and new social media technology strategically creates new levels of awareness within the company.  Between the sophisticated operations that ensure timely and safe flights across a complex airspace system and the numerous suppliers and safety partners, airlines must continuously make sense of information and disseminate timely information across its network of employees and partners.  Likewise, JetBlue’s “crew members” (the company’s preferred term for employees) are stewards of the company brand who must always positively reflect its values. 

The creative workplace strategy behind the JetBlue space was to provide an environment that speaks the language of JetBlue and serves as a live feed into the life of the organization. The space was designed to mimic the experience of flying on JetBlue so that crew members sense similar aspects of that experience. The design also incorporated live social media feeds of weather, flight, and other logistical information throughout the space to create awareness of the relevant variables affecting airline operations. These high tech features were embedded in a flexible space with other low-tech features such as whiteboards and writable surfaces to spark engaging crew member interactions in order to accelerate the flow of information out of the workspace and into the hands and minds of people in the field. 

Lessons Learned

Workspace is a malleable tool with an associated language that can reinforce brand values, mimic your customer’s experiences, and accelerate the flow of important information. For it to work to full effect, people must simultaneously experience and contribute to the ongoing buzz of ideas and content.  A creative workplace strategy can include aligning the office design with business strategy and operations, leveraging social media tools, and providing the right environments for specific tasks. By providing the tools to support the exchange of information, a company is also helping people to manage and make sense of the incoming data.  Whether information flows through social media channels or in real-time through the interactions of individuals in space, the goal is the same—to facilitate a shared language that can lead to insight, innovation, and superior performance.