New rules needed as technology replaces face-to-face meetings

Sept 11 has forced firms to think again over travelling staff, but how can
HR help them communicate effectively?

One organisation was shocked to find that it had 10 per cent of its
workforce travelling when the planes hit the World Trade Center.

That will never be allowed to happen again. A third of large companies have
cut back on executive travel since 11 September and many are using video and
teleconferencing to perform overseas business (News, 4 December).

US research suggests that the use of videoconferencing has increased by 40
per cent in the past three months.

It means that HR professionals need to adopt new rules for effective
communication between people in different locations.

Companies trying to get people to work in multidisciplinary teams have
traditionally relied on a mix of face-to-face meetings and electronic
communication. Informal networking provided the most valuable means, creating
goodwill and understanding of each other’s constraints and priorities.

Now we shall have to learn lessons from employers that have implemented
home-working programmes and have geographically dispersed workforces that have
limited contact with their colleagues.

As face-to-face meetings reduce, organisations will have to rely more on electronic
communication. These are often the weakest weapons in the communication
armoury.

Staff are already reeling from e-mail deluge and voicemail rage. Managers
are seduced by how easy it is to e-mail huge volumes of information in their
battle to keep staff "up to speed". Videoconferences may be fine for
tightly focused meetings, but poor on encouraging small talk. Teleconferences
can penalise those who are not operating in their native language or naturally
talkative.

HR managers need to ensure leaders know how to achieve the same level of
communication as they managed through face-to-face talks. This will involve
rebalancing the "reach" and "richness" of internal
communication. Reach is the extent to which a communication channel can get to
the desired audience, and richness is the capacity of different communication
channels to carry information and emotions, and provide interaction.

Face-to-face meetings and telephones, for example, allow quick response,
conversation and involvement in real time. Videoconferences can allow personal
feelings and emotions to come through, which helps convey both straightforward
meanings and underlying subtleties of message.

However, e-mail and voicemail do not allow people to interact at the same
time.

Good internal communication will mean ensuring electronic channels are
"lean but not mean" by using them more imaginatively for two-way
conversations.

Oracle, for example, uses webcasts and webconferences to get the message
across to its people, and then involves them in debate by using chatrooms. This
allows those who are less voluble or who are not communicating in their native
language to respond without feeling slow or stupid.

BP Amoco gets more out of meetings by using webcams to relay the proceedings
via its intranet to those who can’t attend.

Greater collaboration, at a distance or in the same room, requires more
understanding of the ways group members influence each other, and demands
greater management of social interaction and trust building.

Making this work demands a keener sensitivity to cultural and language
differences and an understanding of how technology and people work best
together.

Richer communication is needed in organisations that face uncertain times.
The greater the degree of change that employees face, the more likelihood there
is of misunderstanding.

In the shift to electronic communication, we need to remember that informing
is not the same as communicating. Communication is two-way, and HR forgets that
at its peril.

By Bill Quirke, a managing director of Synopsis Communication Consulting

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