First of all, what are hallway discussions ? It can be a pretty broad term that can be tentatively be used to describe those conversations that happen in an unstructured way (outside of conference rooms), where people end up discussing an issue in the pantry, or getting in and out of the restroom, or even in the hallway when they run into each other. It can happen between people of very different seniority, and can be a short conversation or can be an extended conversation that could take many different directions.
First of all, how do you not encourage hallway conversations ? It would seem like a very natural thing to happen ? There are some reasons why such conversations can become rare, some by choice, and some due to the organization (and this is not a complete list, there could be many other reasons as well).
- Offices with high walls. I mean this in a physical sense. I once had visited an office where everybody had their own office, there was no common area where people could meet, and you had the entire picture of everybody being busy. In such an environment, it can be difficult to have an accidental conversation and almost impossible to have a planned hallway conversation (one where you see somebody leaving their seat and follow them to have a quick word with them outside of a planned formal discussion)
- Offices with metaphysical high walls. You know this kind, this could even be a sub-group within an organization. One is really not expected to try to have informal discussions on work related issues; those need to be held on email or through planned meetings (which could be noted down and notes sent). This may seem the right way of doing things, or it could just be the kind of culture that is being inculcated within the organization; no matter the reason, it makes discussions much more formal. To have any discussions with other people, one needs to set request meetings, which adds a lot more overhead to the entire process, and even though there are some advantages, in my view, it can be a lot more cumbersome.
So what can happen ? Well, the beauty of hallway conversations is that a lot of it happens naturally. You see a person, and suddenly something strikes you about some issue you have in your mind - this could be some technical problem that comes to mind when you see a more skilled computer engineer, it could be some part of the requirements that is not clear which comes to mind when you see the product manager, it could be some problem in a defect that comes to your mind when you see a tester - there can be many combinations. In a number of cases, the solution happens then and there, and is there no better and less cumbersome method of resolution.
How do you encourage hallway conversations ?
- Culture. Managers across the different teams need to ensure that people can approach other people if they meet them and have a conversation. Of course, this should only be till a reasonable level, and should not be used when a more detailed discussion is required with multiple people (and most people have an idea about where a hallway conversation will do, and where a formal meeting is required)
- Infrastructure. I also saw another office where there are a number of small meeting rooms, with only 3-4 seats in each (apart from the larger conference rooms). The idea being that if the hallway conversation lasts for more than a couple of minutes, both the people can pick up their coffee and have a slightly longer conversation in one of these rooms.