Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Facebook as Staff Backchannel: A Simple Way to Promote Transparency and Intimacy

A month ago, one of our front-line staff members, Sarah Groh, came to her supervisor and me with a concern. Sarah and some of her colleagues in visitor services feel disconnected from the work that happens "upstairs" in the office and in our creative project development.

This problem is nothing new. Any place with people working different schedules in different parts of the building suffers from it. It can be easy for front-line staff to feel like second-class citizens; they can't make it to regular staff meetings, they work on days when other people are off, and their work, while deeply important to our overall mission, can be repetitive and deeply unsexy.

At our museum, we've gotten better at communication up from the front desk to the office. Visitor services staff write synopses of weekend days, notable visitor interactions, and events that help me and others get a sense of what's going on. But as Sarah pointed out, that communication is one-way: from front-line to office, never from office to the front desk.

And so we decided to try something really simple: a private staff Facebook group. We thought for a minute about more complicated backchannel options but realized that what we really wanted was an easy-to-use, opt-in space where people could share what's going on with their work.

At first, from a managerial perspective, I was unsure. Would people feel pressured to post and follow? Would enough people use it to make it work? Would it help with the basic problem we were trying to solve?

Within just a week of its creation, the "MAH Stories" private Facebook group had proven itself as a ridiculous success. People use it to share surprises in the archives, inspiring meetings with artists, dead birds in the lobby, and free food in the fridge. People post silly photographs from the basement cleanup and cheer on each other's small successes. A colleague who's out on maternity leave posts photos of her baby and makes everyone jealous.

The group organically and immediately put an end to all-staff emails (except for the highly administrative). At the same time, it opened up opportunities to share things that never would have felt "important enough" for an all-staff email - like the fact that three people were wearing purple pants on Tuesday, or a photo of an exhibit in development, or the false alarm on a bomb threat due to an overturned crockpot in the driveway. For several of us who were traveling in May to conferences, the Facebook group became a natural place to get reconnected with the flow of what's happening at home and to share some of what we were learning on the road.

I doubt this would be the perfect solution for every organization, but it really is amazing how quickly it has changed the nature of cross-institution communication at our museum. Here are a few things I'm learning from this experiment:
  • Promoting openness and participation on staff takes just as much work as it does in the community. We're an institution that focuses intentionally on being transparent and collaborative with our community members. It's ironic and a bit surprising that I didn't realize sooner that we need the same level of intentionality to bring this ethos inside the museum as well. Kudos to Sarah for making it happen. 
  • There's a healthy creative tension between transparency and intimacy. Sometimes, I look at the internal Facebook group and I think, "this is what our regular Facebook page should look like. This is the kind of creativity and personality that we want to share with everyone." But then I realize the incredible value of the intimate space behind the closed door, where we can be silly and experimental without fear. It's also the one place we can get away from the constant dialogue with the community. The privacy of the group binds us together as a team, even as it highlights ways we could be more "ourselves" in the public sphere.
  • Connectedness builds staff culture. No one wants to get (or send) an email about a weird work dream. But on Facebook, it becomes a funny thing to comment on and connect with. The Facebook group has allowed us to cheerlead for each other, make jokes, and banter in ways that don't always happen in an intense work environment.
  • Using a tool that everyone already knows is a heck of a lot easier than converting people onto something new. We could have adopted a tool like Yammer that is made specifically for private company conversations. But everyone was on Facebook, knew how to use it, and was using it in the course of daily life already. We didn't have to become "friends" on the site to be in a group together. The adoption was automatic and smooth with zero time spent in trainings or plaintive emails reminding people to use it (a fate I have seen many intranets suffer).
What tools do you use to stay connected behind-the-scenes?

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