A few weeks ago, some colleagues and I were on a Skype call and after a few minutes realized that everyone who was on the call was actually in the same office.
Oh, the beauty of the digital workplace. We can work from anywhere, anytime, and never have to leave our desk nor our device. With phone in hand, we are at the center of our work universe. We use email and text throughout the day and night to be in constant touch with colleagues, the boss, and customers. And we feel accomplished at the day’s close, having exchanged so much information and deleted so many messages.
Electronic communications is fast becoming the preferred method of interacting. Why? The truth is, it’s easier and far faster to text, IM, or email with somebody than to actually pick up the phone or meet somebody in person. There’s much less risk in making a faux pas, and there are no awkward silences, nor the need to engage in long and sometimes painful conversations when a few quick words would do just fine.
But is this really workplace nirvana? We’re human beings, not robots. The other, nearly forgotten senses still matter at work and deliver a valuable connection to the physical world: the sound of someone’s voice, a colleague’s face lighting up at a new idea, the warm touch of skin when shaking a hand.
Nonverbal communications are absolutely critical in business relationships. An individual’s positive, engaged, and caring expression and a neat, professional physical appearance can seal a deal with the customer or ease the concerns of a colleague who’s disagreeing with teammates on an important project. A nod of the head, a wink of the eye, a firm handshake–these are just a few of the nonverbal behaviors that are missing today with so many of us zoned in to phones and laptops.
Through focusing on bringing back nonverbal communications and physical interactions into daily work, companies can be more innovative and customer-focused. People will be happier working for you if they feel more connected to each other and not just an easily replaceable account on the network.
Here are a few ideas on how to make digital workplaces a bit more personal:
How many times have you sat on a conference call trying to decipher who’s talking, what’s going on, and who keeps beeping in and out of the call?
Given the highly virtual nature of today’s workforce, there’s no way of getting around the conference call. But, there is a way to make it more effective.
At online training platform Mindflash, we require employees to have Webcams in use for all our conference calls. Seeing each other talking during a call makes all the difference in achieving goals for the meeting and feeling connected around the ideas we’re discussing. If you have a large meeting occurring as a webcast, you can enable similar capabilities so that the participant asking a question is visible through a video link.
Studies continue to show that we are spending more time online: eMarketer found last year that the average user spends 23 hours a week emailing, texting, and using social media and other forms of online communications.
At the office, our boss or team might be in the same building, and still we use text, instant messaging, and email to communicate throughout the day. Instead, get up, stretch your legs (that’s good for you anyway), and visit your teammates in person.
If you are bothering to drive into work and you’re not seeing or talking to anybody, you might as well stay at home. If you’re discussing anything more involved than where to go for lunch or whether to reschedule a meeting, try using the phone or knocking on your colleague’s door.
For those of you who worked in an office before the year 2000, you’ll vaguely remember the business lunch. Yes, that’s where you get in your car or walk out the door to a restaurant and share a meal with a colleague away from the desk.
Perhaps it’s time to bring back some flexibility into the T&E budget and allow your top salespeople to take out their top customers once a week. After all, business deals and long-term relationships usually don’t occur over email.
There’s also a measurable value in asking employees who don’t have customer-facing roles to get involved with customers from time to time. At Mindflash, all employees regularly rotate to take customer support contacts. That helps us learn about the business and gain some valuable, personable customer interaction time.
Bringing a laptop into a meeting to take notes and view presentations right on the screen seems like a great idea for productivity at first, but all those laptops around the table means that nobody’s looking at each other, and perhaps not even paying attention.
It’s easy to get distracted with email and social media that has nothing to do with the meeting with your laptop screen open. Instead, consider holding meetings without laptops or phones. Ask employees to bring a notepad and just use a whiteboard.
Technology has allowed companies to hire people all over the country and the world, getting the best talent at the best price for the job. Many companies have growing percentages of people who work from home or in small satellite offices, giving workers the flexibility they need. Yet it’s important to get everyone together periodically.
Consider flying in all of the remote people to company headquarters at least twice yearly. It can be expensive, sure, but the cultural and collaborative benefits of face time for employees are real. An employee off-site could be the genesis of a new product idea or operational change that could make a huge difference in near-term strategy.
Getting the full team together helps employees feel part of the larger mission and can help people work together better all year long simply by offering a few meals and teambuilding activities in the flesh.
I think we might be on the cusp of a move away from the pervasive use of technology in work and life. This doesn’t mean we will abandon our devices or the useful apps that make life so much easier and more productive in many ways. But it does mean that we need to start creating boundaries around when to use technology.
—Randhir Vieira is vice president of product and marketing at Mindflash.