We Shut Off Our Company Phones Every Friday -- and You Should, Too

Last Updated Jul 14, 2010 10:30 AM EDT

If you talk to many executives, they'll tell you there is just not enough time in the day to worry about the soft stuff -- culture, values, people's emotions, feelings. There's real work to be done. That's like saying there's so much to do during the day that you shouldn't sleep. Like sleep, pausing to talk to your staff not only facilitates work -- it's essential to getting it done.

In fact, to me regular talks with employees are so important that they even trump answering customer service calls -- or really any phone call -- at least on Fridays. For the last three years from exactly 2 to 2:15 p.m. every Friday, everyone in the company -- that's all 115 employees -- stops what they're doing. Our voice message tells callers we're all in training. We stand together and talk. Well, I do most of the talking. So we call it "Say Jay."

We got the idea after visiting the Googleplex. If a huge company like Google can turn off its phones every week to hold an all-hands meeting, then we certainly can at the Blinds.com-plex -- and probably you can, too.

We used to have two separate offices (our main office in southwest Houston and another forty minutes away northwest of town). I seldom visited the second office and even though we're a small business, many employees had never even seen each other. People cannot collaborate if they don't feel connected. And emails and memos aren't good enough. So we felt we would be more connected if I used Skype to video conference everyone together. We no longer have two offices but we've kept the weekly all hands.

Each week the topics are different, but usually involve highlighting superior effort, achievements, employee anniversaries, new-hire introductions, charity events we're sponsoring; and discussing the results of experiments, such as website navigation. But most importantly, these talks are about preparing people for what's coming up. It's the single best thing you can do to get their acceptance, and develop their resilience and adaptability. Plus, this is the sort of thing that trickles down to your customers. If you expect your employees to be flexible and adaptable with customers, start by getting them accustomed to change within the company.

One of the worst things you can do to your employees is not keep them apprised of what's going on in the company, and where they fit in. Obviously, the whole company can't be involved in all decisions and planning. But nobody likes surprises in business. Not employees, not investors, not suppliers, not customers -- unless you do more than expected.

What I'm talking about, though, is preparing people for change. If you eliminate surprises, you develop trust because people will feel secure. If you taint the truth and anticipated difficulties, people will feel threatened when those events occur. Then it just takes a handful to upset everyone else. Level with everyone on your team and speak candidly (which seems to seldom happen in most organizations), and people will trust you. It is paramount for a leader to trust his or her crew, but that won't happen unless they trust you first, and leaders have to earn that trust. These all-hands meetings are perfect for that.

So, turn off your phones, and start talking.

Here are my 3 rules for getting the most out of short, all-hands meetings:

  1. Start and end them on time. No exceptions.
  2. Nothing is off limits. It's important that your employees know that you are receptive to hearing all of their concerns.
  3. Be absolutely candid, especially about difficulties you anticipate.
Off the hook photo courtesy of Flickr/faungg
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    Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window blinds sales. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His company was named Best Place to Work in Houston, won the American Marketing Association's Marketer of the Year, and Steinfeld was named by the Houston Chronicle as Houston's top CEO in the under-150 employee category for the last 2 years.