We need to talk: using structured time to facilitate unstructured chat

Have you ever wished you had more opportunities to chat informally with your colleagues, to get to know them and learn from each other in a relaxed atmosphere, with no agenda, minutes, or actions?

Here’s a solution: use structured time to facilitate unstructured chat.

In many workplaces, employees are scattered between offices, buildings, and campuses. Mechanisms exist to bring us together for formal meetings, but we rely on fleeting moments to build relationships, chat about problems, and share helpful tips.

People are often full of goodwill about chatting over coffee or welcoming unscheduled drop-ins, but these Want-Tos are often squeezed out by our Have-Tos, and they fall down in our list of priorities.

Enter: a series of monthly get-togethers to help us make time to chat, and seed crystals of collaboration and support.  At Sunderland University Library, we did this for the first time in 2013-14, and named the series Professional Practice Forum (PPF).

Crucially, these sessions are put into diaries just like formal meetings, and each one has a theme in order to provide focus, and help attendees to justify their time there.

To help attendance across a range of working patterns, PPF sessions are scattered across different times of day, and different days of the week. For each month, a facilitator is appointed, and they are responsible for choosing the theme, how it will be approached, and organising the venue.

Our themes this year have included blogging, information skills teaching, hobnobbing with students (“the biscuit one”), dissertation support, technology and distance learners, TeachMeet, and student support for maths and study skills.

The theme provides a core topic for discussion and exchange of ideas, and our conversation will often veer off in other directions.

Here is some feedback from this year’s participants:

  • Useful networking opportunity especially working with [colleagues] I wouldn’t normally see/talk to. 1 hour a month when I take the time to think specifically about my professional development. Wouldn’t do this otherwise.  Intro to TeachMeet idea made attending one less scary.
  • I found the practice sharing aspect to the forum particularly useful and it gave everyone an opportunity to contribute and share their practice with colleagues.  Thanks everyone!
  • The sessions I attended were not only interesting but a good opportunity to discuss practices with colleagues – we don’t really get to do in other areas e.g. team meetings.
  • Useful opportunity both to share ideas and practices but also picked up some new information which I didn’t previously know about.
  • A really valuable forum for liaison discussion and sharing ideas/best practice. I really enjoyed the sessions and have used material either developed/created from ideas discussed here or shared from others in my liaison and skills sessions. Looking forward to seeing what’s on the agenda for next year!

So, if you and you colleagues sometimes feel that you could benefit from some less formal interactions alongside your official meetings, try this format of structuring the opportunity to meet, then letting the conversation flow.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: So long, Sunderland – and some data-related unfinished business | Laura's Dark Archive

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