I’m a dinosaur. When I’m at a restaurant and I see a table of young people focused on their individual hand-held devices instead of talking to each other, I despair. Certainly, it seems that tech-savvy young people are more engaged with their technology than they are with each other, even in the presence of each other. Not only are they taking pictures of their meal and posting them instantly online, they’re often texting each other – at the same table. No murmur of conversation. No eye-to-eye connection. It seems just plain rude.
I have to remind myself they are communicating. They’re just using technology to do it. Surely, something’s lost in translation. Is there an upside, particularly in how people communicate and relate in the workplace? And what part does technology plays in that discourse?
In its latest Workmonitor report (Q1 2016) ‘Technology and the human touch’, Randstad polled workers in 34 countries around the world about, among other issues, communication in the technological workplace. This online survey asked employees ages 18 to 65 some pretty direct questions about how they felt about their ability to communicate, and whether or not technology helped or hindered their ability to relate to, and build relationships with, their fellow workers. The results, while telling, are important for another reason: we know that employees who can communicate with each other are more engaged and content, build more successful social networks and are more likely to stay with a company where they’ve built relationships. That’s critically important if you’re an employer looking to compete in the marketplace.
Among its findings, the survey reported that:
- over three-quarters of those polled feel technology and digitization have majorly impacted their jobs.
- over half feel technology makes society less humane.
- over half feel technology makes them feel less connected to people in the real world.
- over 90% believe that a face-to-face meeting is the best way to interact with someone.
- almost half feel they have fewer personal interactions with colleagues due to technology.
No-one can argue that technology has impacted the workplace in positive ways. It simplifies processes and how work gets done. It improves working conditions, increases security, and simplifies communication and the flow and exchange of information. Workers around the world can work on the same document, at the same time, in real time. Technology increases worker mobility, freeing them from their desks, allowing them to work from home, their car or anywhere in the world they have Internet access. Technology supporters claim that technology improves work relationships because it promotes sharing and collaboration.
People who work remotely love the flexibility and work/life balance it supports. On the flip side, the loss of physical proximity to colleagues affects a person’s ability to refine their interpersonal skills, and therefore their ability to build relationships in important ways. Instead of a co-worker break at the water cooler, they’re folding laundry. They can become isolated and lose their face-to-face interpersonal skills, which negatively impacts the workplace relationships they do have. They may be part of a virtual team, but there’s not a lot of space or time for small talk – the way people relate to the work they do that helps build interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
Being in the presence of someone allows us to not only hear what they’re saying, but also to read and assess body language, non-verbal and emotional cues, and determine appropriate responses. Fewer misunderstandings and more opportunities for clarification come along with this kind of communication. This doesn’t even take into account the assumption technology makes of us that we be available 24/7 because, thanks to technology, we are.
That said, technologies like Skype and FaceTime that allow us to see and communicate with our colleagues create a new way of ‘being in the presence of’. They’re the new face-to-face for many widespread or international organizations. They make us swap our yoga pants and slippers for more work-appropriate wardrobe. We sit straighter, engage more, listen harder, monitor faces and body language to read subtext and emotional cues. We may be working from the dining room table, but we’re still working. Communication looks – and feels – deeper, richer, more meaningful and substantial than it could possibly be in a restrictive number of keystrokes. In short, we have to summon up our communication and engagement skills, even if we’re continents apart.
What happens if we’ve never learned those skills? Or forgotten them from lack of use? We learn interpersonal skills through experience. Our parents, teachers, peers, colleagues and the world at large teach us how to relate to each other specific to our particular cultural sphere. These are the skills through which we learn to resolve conflict – a critical skill as we mature and take our place in the world of work.
I’m one of those people who believe technology is limited in how much it can enhance the human experience in the workplace. It’s only as good and effective as the people using it. It still requires input from humans. Email has replaced snail mail as the communication of choice but that doesn’t mean people are good at creating text, setting a tone, finding a voice, making a point, or writing clearly and articulately. And having the latest, most innovative technologies available for employees may be a huge motivator for technology-loving employees but it doesn’t guarantee engagement for those of us who aren’t turned on by the latest, greatest gadget.
The workplace continues to evolve. Employers seek workers who combine knowledge, experience, technical know-how and soft skills. The ability to communicate is high on that list. Business schools include communication skills as an important part of the curriculum, because they know that it doesn’t matter how well you perform your task, how smart you are or how highly you place on a class list if you can’t relate to others. More and more companies are recognizing the ability to provide good customer service as a critical differentiator in the marketplace. It often determines which businesses will rise to the top and which ones will sink like stones. Good customer service – great customer service – depends entirely on smart processes that work and people – humans – to implement and move them forward. Technology can only take it so far before customers want, need, demand to speak with a person.
Regardless of which side of the technology fence you fall, its effects can’t be overstated. It’s dramatically changed the way companies do business, making them more efficient and streamlined, and increasing their productivity. Many technologies are designed to enhance collaboration and interaction, and integrate workflows. Social media is the new best friend, connecting co-workers and increasing engagement.
There are new ways to connect with each other in the workplace. Maybe it’s time a dinosaur like me stops sulking and gets on board.