I was in a meeting the other day with a bloke called Mark. I’ve known Mark for some time – he’s a project manager in IT and we’ve been working on some comms stuff together. We’d attend the same meetings, say hello in the corridor and exchange emails, like you do. All very cordial, all very workmanlike. In this particular meeting my phone went off (how unprofessional, I know). My ring tone is an old Genesis track. Mark recognised it and told me he’d been listening to that exact song in the car that morning. We continued the conversation about music, and he then mentioned that he plays in a band. So did I once. It then turns out that Mark is a mad motorbike nut, spends most of his weekends ‘on the road’ with his mates and also likes walking in the Lake District, as I do. So ‘Mark the Project Manager’ became ‘Mark the bike-riding, guitar-playing, fell-walker’ in the space of five minutes brought about by a ringtone. If my wife hadn’t called to ask me to pick up some cat litter on the way home, I wouldn’t know all this about Mark. Why does it matter? Well, because knowing about a person and finding common ground builds relationships, breaks down barriers and creates a more informal and relaxed (and creative) environment. When we’re at work we have a persona – a title, a role, a way of working and a framework of behaviour set out by written and unwritten rules, convention and perceived good professional conduct. We all try to be businesslike and professional at work, of course we do. Work is serious business, obviously. But behind the persona is the person – the lives, loves, likes, dislikes, passions, fears, motivations, frustrations, obsessions, dreams, hopes, experiences, secrets, relationships, problems, stresses and releases that make us all human. And the colleague we see in the office may not be the ‘real them’. There’s the person who never speaks in a team meeting but who performs amateur dramatics at weekends. The office junior who can’t be trusted to order some paper clips but who runs a scout group on Tuesday evenings. The person who says they’re not creative in a brainstorm but who goes home and whips up an amazing stir fry. The manager who delivers dull presentations but can bring people to tears with his piano playing. The quiet part-timer in the corner who answers phones for the Samaritans for two hours every other night. Not only does this highlight the complete waste of experience and creativity that organisations could exploit but don’t, but it also begs the question what would our workplaces be like if we all knew the people behind the job titles. Collaboration would be improved, business relationships would flourish, ideas would be voiced, circulated and nurtured, innovation would boom, productivity would increase because people would be relaxed and happier, retention would go up, stress would go down. All because we’d be working with friends with substance not colleagues with note pads. So let’s take time to get to know the people we work with. Opening up a team meeting with tales of what we did at the weekend shouldn’t be considered small talk, it should be big talk. I’d like to see HR departments formally recognise the skills and experience people have outside of work. Let’s see communicators do more to identify, share and celebrate the achievements of the workforce out of hours. And let’s create environments in which people can come together to talk about stuff other than work. Having conversations and finding common ground with others is naturally human. And conversations about holiday destinations will soon become conversations about solving business problems.