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Employee Engagement

In a Digital Workplace, Interpersonal Communication Still Rules

With today’s technology, you can run an entire business without ever seeing your co-workers. The basic tenet of a digital workplace is for us to be able to get our work done any where and at any time. We don’t need to be confined to an office, or be physically present to our co-workers, for work to be completed.

For an introvert like me, this can be a very good thing. But in the long run, the absence or lack of interpersonal communication — face-to-face interaction — has its downsides.

Interpersonal communication still rules. Even in a digital workplace. Even when your social intranet works perfectly. It’s still the most effective way to get our message across. In face-to-face communication, we not only get the person’s words, but we also hear the tone of their voice, see their facial expression, and observe how they tilt their head, move their shoulders, wave their hands and other forms of body language — we can even them blush or sweat. All these non-verbal cues enhance our understanding of their total message.

Computer-mediated communication (CMC), on the other hand, is mostly text-based and bereft of these visual, non-verbal cues.

Without the non-verbal inputs, the chance for miscommunication is higher. As we read an email without the benefit of knowing the sender’s tone, it’s easy to ascribe the wrong emotions to it. Is the writer angry? Indifferent? Mocking? We can’t know for sure; emoticons can only go so far. Most likely, our interpretation will depend on our own emotional state as we read the message. If we’re feeling guilty about something, for example, we perceive the boss’s email as accusatory.

Certainly, CMC requires us to apply a different set of skills so we can be effective even in virtual spaces such as chat rooms, blog post comments, and message boards. According to researchers at Apple University Consortium, these skills include not only the obvious such as writing with your intended meaning and reading the right context into messages. But also skills like self-censoring and “netiquette.”

Virtual communication can also lead to isolation or digital fragmentation. Even the most introverted among us still need human, face-to-face interaction. We’re not wired to interface with a computer screen all day long.

All this result in less employee engagement, connectedness and trust in the workplace — elements every organization needs to achieve collaboration, higher productivity and, ultimately, success. You have to admit, it’s much harder to bond with someone you’ve only exchanged text-based messages with, someone you haven’t seen beyond their avatar.

How can companies leverage face-to-face communication, even if they are geographically fragmented? Here are three ideas.

1. Go beyond text-based CMC

If an in-person meeting is impossible, then go beyond mere text or voice and have a video chat. Free video conferencing tools, like Skype and Google Hangouts, will allow you to have virtual conversations enriched with non-verbal communication.

2. Encourage the exchange of ambient awareness

Ambient awareness, a sense of knowing another person who is physically absent, can help staff get to know each other and start building relationships, even if they haven’t met in person. To facilitate ambient awareness, use the intranet to share personal as well as office-related updates.

3. Don’t forgo with face-to-face meetings and events

Keep a budget for in-person activities. Sure, with your intranet and other collaboration tools, you may not have to spend as much on travel and related costs. However, don’t scrap this budget altogether. If at all possible, organize at least one face-to-face activity every year. Consider it an investment in team building, collaboration and employee engagement.

Communication technology is growing exponentially. In six months, what we’re using may be considered obsolete. However, the basics of human interaction remain the same. We will always need and seek the human touch.

If your organization is geographically dispersed, how do you maintain that human touch while using virtual communication technologies? Share your thoughts and experiences below.

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