In a slump? Step away from your inbox and grab coffee with a colleague.
While more of our business and personal communications are moving online, psychologist Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, argues our growing lack of social contact is hindering our ability to build strong business relationships, and may also have a negative impact on our health and happiness.
“In a short evolutionary time we have changed from group-living primates skilled at reading each other’s every gesture and intention, to a solitary species; each one of us preoccupied with our own screen,” she writes.
Pinker argues the movement toward communicating through technology stands in the way of our most basic biological necessities. Face-to-face interaction causes the release of oxytocin, also called the cuddle chemical, as it’s the same hormone released in women breastfeeding to bond with their babies.
While experts formerly viewed oxytocin as a female hormone, it’s now raising interest in the business community for its ability to facilitate trust. When people connect physically–through a handshake, a pat on the back or a high five–oxytocin is released, promoting feelings of attachment and trust, facilitating greater collaboration among team members.
Oxytocin plays a number of other important roles, such as boosting mood and improving our ability to learn and remember. Increased social contact has also been shown to dampen cortisol–the chemical that is released when we’re under stress.
These chemical reactions do not occur through email or even a Skype chat, but through real-life human-to-human contact. “The real-life connections that we all crave–that we’ve evolved to benefit from through many millennia of evolution–can’t be replaced by texting or email,” says Pinker. Yet, rather than getting up to walk to a colleague’s desk, most of us will simply shoot off an email.
Pinker says she isn’t anti-technology. She admits to being attached to her devices just as much as anyone else, but she does argue our obsession with using digital technology to connect with others causes us to miss out on the many benefits of face-to-face interaction. “Digital technologies are great for sharing information, but they’re not really good for human connection,” she says.
In her book, she cites various studies that show increased social contact can not only give our mood a boost, but our productivity as well. One such study of 25,000 call center agents demonstrates this clearly. In the experiment, employees were divided into two groups–one who took staggered breaks alone, and another who took breaks with their coworkers. Those who had an opportunity for 15 minutes to chat and socialize with coworkers showed a 20% increase in performance.
Physical connectivity also delivers important health benefits. Numerous studies have shown individuals who live active social lives recover from illness faster than those who are more isolated. A 2006 University of California, San Francisco study of 3,000 women with breast cancer found those with a large network of friends were four times as likely to survive the disease as women with fewer social connections. These connections involved face-to-face contact; not Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
Incorporating more face time in the workplace requires a rethink of communications. “We’ve been presented with a dilemma right now,” says Pinker. “In business, digital connection with social media is considered to be the Holy Grail. It’s cheaper; it’s more convenient. But when it comes to worker productivity, happiness, and satisfaction, those companies that are focusing on face-to-face interaction are taking the lead in their industries.”
Google is one such company taking advantage of the productivity benefits resulting from face-to-face contact. “They’ve created an environment that is focused on social interaction,” says Pinker.
Comfortable sofas organized into gathering places that entice people to meet rather than individual offices, cafeterias, game rooms, and open spaces that encourage people to socialize have improved collaboration among Google employees. “There’s a synergy that happens when people are together in the same place and have the freedom to bounce ideas off each other,” says Pinker.
How can you build more face-to-face time into your workday? Pinker offers these solutions:
- Take frequent breaks to socialize.
- Encourage your company to create workspaces and social spaces that allow people to gather and share ideas.
- For remote workers, join a hub, or communal workspace where interacting with others and sharing ideas is encouraged.
- Create your own opportunities for social interaction–such as a book club or a working group–to discuss the latest trends in your industry.
- Invite a colleague out for coffee.