Can A Digital Connection Replace A Physical One?

Social media makes a worthwhile contribution to our social lives, but it's no substitute for in-person interaction. Here's why.

Social media can boost productivity, improve decisions, and drive sales, but the danger is that managers will be deluded into thinking it can substitute for the day-to-day investment in face-to-face connections.

In a recent study of 2,698 people, corporate training company VitalSmarts found that three in five workers say that social media tools result in better relationships at work. And one in three have found them invaluable in work-related projects.

People are using these tools in surprisingly original ways, too. For example, one firm creates Twitter back channels for webinars employees attend, which allows attendees to comment in real time on the topic with each other.

Like the telephone, social media is becoming ubiquitous, and MIT’s Alex Pentland helps us understand why we should be cautious about this.

Pentland and his team recently strapped devices he calls “sociometric badges” to a vast number of people. The device detects body movement, location, and sound, and he uses it to gather real-time data about social interactions in the workplace and beyond.

When he strapped the badges to workers from a number of businesses and industries—for example, a 3,000-person Bank of America call center—over a six-week period, the badges showed who talked to whom and for how long.

From the data these devices procured, his team learned that the single human factor that most drives every measure of team and organizational performance is frequency of face-to-face interaction.

Specifically, the more employees connect face-to-face with people outside and inside the organization, the better things get. The less it happens, the worse things get. Period.

For example, the Bank of America call center data showed stunted social interaction between employees. This makes sense when you consider that call centers are all about productivity. Modern tracking tools tell managers instantly if an employee is taking too long to handle calls or too long picking up the next one.

And yet, surprisingly, Pentland’s research showed that the teams with the highest productivity were the ones that broke from this norm. These teams spent more time face-to-face with each other and with their supervisors.

At the MIT team’s suggestion, Bank of America changed its break policy. Whereas previously breaks were staggered so that only one team member would be on break at a time, the teams began taking their breaks together. This small change yielded an immediate $15 million annual productivity boost.

Trust and teamwork can be enhanced through virtual contact, but the physics of building them is a fundamentally physical process. Some of the primary tasks of leadership are modeling, encouraging, and enabling trust-building contact of the most personal kind.

Today’s leaders are becoming enamored—and rightly so—with the efficiency of social media tools. Some organizations release two-minute YouTube videos at the end of every pay period to update employees on important news, a valuable act that increases employees’ sense of inclusion and engagement.

At the same time, I see worrying signs that managers fantasize that uploading a two-minute video can be a substitute for stopping by cubicles, rolling up their sleeves, and eating lunch with the rest of the team.

Relationships require investment and risk. Nothing says, “you can trust me” like getting to the other side of a tough issue shoulder to shoulder.

Influence can be enhanced but not replaced by tools that extend the sense of connection beyond the physical world. Hopefully this round of innovation will see us using but not abusing the remarkable benefits of social media.

Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times best-selling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.

[Image: Flickr user Alexander Kachkaev]

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