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Scientific Breakthrough:: BANTER MATTERS

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The same goes for team work. All work and no play is what machines do. Relational life breathes joy into teams working together.

We are now four months into this new world of isolated, distanced, digital work. It’s not changing anytime soon, so my team and I were talking last week about what we’ve lost in this new all-zoom-all-the-time reality.

Yes, video conferencing is one of the greatest tools of our day. I can’t imagine working without it. At the same time, by gathering on the screen we lose the little micro-expressions and signals and sub-vocal noises that add a human connection to meeting and working in the same room.

As I see it, because we are all tired of “all zoom all the time,” we work to make our video conference calls more efficient. You know anyone who is lobbying to make your video calls run longer? We fight to keep things tight. To keep unproductive banter to a minimum.

No, I am not trying to diagnose the “Zoom fatigue” everyone is talking about. I am just going after one thing we’ve lost that is easily within our grasp and would actually strengthen the productivity of our teams:

Banter Matters!

Banter is not just a time-waster. It is more than a mechanism to fill those awkward moments while everyone gets online and solves the endless “why am I muted” problem.

Simple banter is one of the ways we invite people into the fabric of our lives. It de-escalates the hyper-seriousness of our work. It deflates our drivenness. It creates connective tissue between people as we gain nuanced insights into how our teammates are wired and what they care about.

If we were in the office together, you know how it would look. Someone would post pictures of their new puppy in the break room. Then someone else would stick a post-it-note under the picture saying, “ahhh, he looks just like you, Jim.”

Walking down the hallway, someone would poke their head into your office to ask, “How did the little league game go on Saturday?" Or, “wasn’t it your daughter’s first date last Friday? Dish. How’d it go?”

Or we would conspire to avoid someone’s lunchtime rehearsal of their stories about vacation to Death Valley. Who goes to Death Valley?

This kind of simple banter actually connects us to one another on a level much deeper than the work we accomplish. It humanizes our culture. It lubricates the more challenging conversations and assignments with backstory and humanity.

Look, I know, banter isn’t as much fun on screen, when you can’t see the physical reactions or micro-responses of the group to stories about the worst pizza you ever ate, or your battle with ants over the weekend, or moments of actual importance.

If you read my post on how Great Teams Choose Tension, you’ll see that this is a counter balance to the productivity side of teamwork.

Great Teams actually learn to do work and life together.

And, I know that allowing time for unproductive story telling and interpersonal banter can feel like wasting the limited time video calls seem to occupy. However, not allowing for that human texture to your work will erode your productivity and cost you the relational lubricant that makes everything work better.

Let’s Get Practical:

If you’re the leader, initiate a little banter. You don’t need to create a free-for-all, but you can shape a new zoom normal by using your role to provoke a little story telling.

  • Invite Jim to use the screen share feature to show pictures of that new puppy.

  • Ask Shirley about that Little League game.

  • Invite someone to tell the group about the biggest disappointment of Death Valley.

  • Inject a little vulnerability by telling how you lost the war with ants in your backyard.

  • Sponsor another team Happy Hour where no work conversation is allowed

Work and some play makes for a great team—even if zoom is all you have to work with.

A bonus factoid:

According to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the saying “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” was coined back in 1659! James Howell included it in a book of proverbs. He also included its corollary. “All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.”


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