FaceToFaceTime: the value of traditional communication

In the digital age, effective face-to- face communication in an organisation is still vital to successful working practices.

With the rise of smartphones, tablets, twitter, LinkedIn and the virtual office we are often told that we are the most connected, collaborative society of all time.  However, these days we may find that our festive getaway is not quite as ‘away from it all’ as we had hoped. Whether it’s at home or on the ski slopes, the company BlackBerry means that work is probably never far away. Being switched on 24/7 is meant to get the best of us – we can work anywhere, anytime – but is there a better way of working jointly?  In this age of social networking are we ignoring the human touch and so ignoring a crucial element of collaboration?

As much as we would like to think that we are all successful team players able to make any project work, there are occasions when collaborative projects go wrong.  When we at CEDR surveyed 2,000 workers this year about their attitudes to collaboration, over a third gave a “lack of communication” as the main reason for why office teamwork fails, closely followed by the complaint of poor direction from management.  Our research shows that whatever the cause of the poor teamwork it is likely to manifest itself as frustration and lead to further deterioration of relationships at work.

Does work suffer when we hide behind technology?

The effect of failed communication on work collaborations can be immense, resulting in not only missed business opportunities and lower morale, but also an increased likelihood of conflict and dispute when things go wrong.  We encounter countless cases where the essence of the dispute can be seen to have been a difference of opinion as to the meaning of something (be that a job description, policy or even content of an email) which, never being effectively discussed, is left to fester.  The causes of conflict can stem from tiny, casually sown seeds, which can grow at alarming speed and are regularly caused by poor communication.

In terms of how we communicate, tried-and-tested methods are overwhelmingly favoured over more technical or ‘virtual’ solutions. People value face-to-face meetings over all other forms of communication. In our survey four fifths of people said seeing someone in person was either “vital” or “helpful” in enabling successful collaboration.  Remote forms of communication, such as online networking sites, are seen as particularly unhelpful (only a quarter [26%] see them as useful).

Staying within our comfort zone seems to be an important factor in how we choose to communicate at work. That is undoubtedly why we are all comfortable leaving much of our day to day communication to email – and even thinking that this is good practice in building a working relationship and generally preferring email to phone calls. Yet if you spend most of your time thinking about how to compose an email will you ever get to see the look of scepticism in a colleague’s face or hear the tone of concern in a customer’s voice?  One of the biggest dangers of replacing face-to-face contact with virtual contact is that people can fail to perceive when a working relationship does get into problems.

Don’t keep emailing when Rome starts to burn.

So we ignore the way in which we use technology to form our work relationships at our peril. Email is integral to how we work but it is important that we combine them with more traditional ways of communicating, not only when getting a difficult message across but also more generally.  Coming together in person to find solutions to a problem is ultimately the most collaborative of acts. It can help create an imaginative environment, which has the capacity to allow for ‘bumps’ in the road to be smoothed over and enabling ongoing working relationships ways might not have been envisaged. The key is to intervention it to make sure it happens before email communication breaks down completely or, put another way, all trust has evaporated between colleagues.

Although collaborating on projects is difficult, striving to work collaboratively is still a very worthwhile goal for any organisation. Done well, it enables people to feel inspired and engaged, and can produce results far greater than what can be achieved in isolation.  However, it requires good communication and, as our research suggests, we need to ensure that we make time to speak to people in person regularly.  For all that technology enhances our lives, the old ways may frequently still be the best.

Read more about CEDR’s collaboration research here.

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