PEOPLE have been telling me stories about how their companies or colleagues have tried to increase efficiency by decreasing communication.

In the first story, a company got rid of the coffee machine because people spent too much time chatting over their mugs.

The second story was told by a woman whose co-worker refused to talk to her directly, despite sitting at the very next desk. Whenever the woman asked him to discuss something, he would tell her to check the relevant e-mail, or send her own question via e-mail.

In a third instance, a company instituted a policy requiring employees to communicate with each other via e-mail rather than in person, to reduce the distraction of talking in the office!

What do you think happened to morale in all these cases? It seems to me that one would need to study human behaviour for mere minutes before concluding that choices like these pave a very grim road.

Study to discover

It is not what you do but how you do it, though. It is not what you study, but how you study it. Sometimes managers seem to study human nature to close down avenues for expression, when it makes more sense to look for ways to discover and develop them.

Otherwise, the thinking goes like this: Numbers are down, reports are late, people are chatting, the coffee machine is an evil siren luring the company onto jagged rocks.

If you study the nature of your staff with an eye for what is working rather than what is not, you may recognise the talking at the coffee machine as an activity to be exploited for the general good.

Alternatively, you may see that focusing so much on the coffee machine is too narrow a study, and investigate other areas of behaviour.

You may learn that the office is bleeding elsewhere, and that surgically removing the perceived cancer of the coffee machine would be a danger to corporate health rather than an improvement.

If you can accept it, you can manage it.

I finally heard an encouraging story from someone whose department head encourages everyone to dress colourfully on Mondays to beat the blues, and at a certain time of the morning, she comes out of her office and tells everyone to go around and talk to one another about the weekend.

Setting aside a time for a chat about the weekend serves many purposes. Among them, the team members appreciate the manager's respect for the human desire to engage, and they come in on Mondays knowing that after doing a bit of work, they can have a nice chat fest.

The manager, for her part, knows that before the chat fest, her employees will apply themselves to catching up with their responsibilities, and after the chat fest, they will go back to work with energy. They might take a little while to settle down, but their brains will be "on" and they will be pleased to be part of the organisation.

Although this policy is most likely easier to be instituted in an office largely populated with women, the excellence of the principle remains: Let people do what it is in their nature to do, and study it so that you can manage and benefit from it.

Be a keen observer

Learn to watch human nature at the office watering hole like how a zoologist studies animal behaviour:

* Note the people who do the most talking at the coffee machine. Perhaps they would make good presenters?

* Note the different groups that gather. Are they budding work units? Would they like a project?

* Note the people who never sidle over for a chat. Why don't they? Would they benefit from being invited over by you?

* Note if someone you need to talk to is there. Go over and ask your question and promote discussion, thereby marking the coffee machine as a place for brainstorming as well as a social spot.

Remember to wear camouflage when observing staff. Stay low in the grass. If they get a whiff of you, they will skitter away and start hunting their caffeine elsewhere.