The lost art of conversation: how email hinders communication

Email, instant messaging and social media have become the favoured methods of communication for many organisations. However, Doug Shaw, founder of consultancy What Goes Around, argues that a lack of face-to-face communication can reduce productivity

The mass adoption of digital communication methods in the workplace has led to a spike in the speed at which information is shared and an increase in how much we are able to communicate. But is this all good? Or has it been to the detriment of the little inflections, nuances and visual cues that come from sharing a conversation in the same physical space as another person?

Postpone or ignore?

The nature of email allows you to postpone responding or even ignore a message altogether. Many executives prefer this to face-to-face conversation, as they may actually be coerced into making an assessment or openly discussing an ongoing issue.

This culture of avoidance has the potential to significantly hamper the progress of organisations by delaying the decision-making process and disrupting the output and efficiency of colleagues in other areas of the business. A face-to-face conversation allows for immediate feedback on an issue and accelerates progress.

A smart HR manager would be wise to promote an office culture in which it is acceptable for employees to physically approach a more senior member of staff with an urgent problem, and organisations should trust their employees to gauge what is urgent and what is not.

The stress of ambiguity

Even if a decision reaches your inbox in good time, an ambiguous email has the potential to be even more damaging than an unpunctual one. A misinterpreted message may lead to incorrect action being taken and can have far-reaching consequences at both a financial and reputational level.

An unclear message will require further clarification, instigating another email “conversation”, adding yet more time to the whole process. Having to decipher ambiguous emails can also cause stress and anxiety within a workforce through fear of doing something wrong, particularly if the employees involved are working to a tight deadline.

Creating an environment in which it is preferable for employees to seek verbal clarification from their seniors by picking up the phone or visiting their office helps to streamline and de-stress the situation. Actual conversations enable people to pick up the meaning and tone behind what they are being told and may also reveal important visual cues through body language, leading to a significant reduction in misunderstandings.

“Us and them”

Many companies can suffer from a divide between the management and workforce. Whether this divide is perceived or actual, it can have a negative impact on staff morale and, in more severe cases, lead to feelings of resentment within the workforce towards the management.

Management teams communicating the majority of information to their workforce through digital media are likely to fuel the flames of animosity towards themselves and widen the divide. This could potentially have a knock-on effect; damaging motivation, hampering growth and even reducing profit margins.

To curb this culture, it is important for senior management teams to set aside time for face-to-face interaction with the workforce. This could be as simple as following up an update email with a team meeting therefore allowing the workforce to openly address any issues regarding company developments with the senior management team. This helps to make the communication more personal, overcoming any divide and producing a quick resolution.

It would be equally as effective for managers to operate an open-door policy or, even better, a “management-by-walking-about” policy once or twice a week in which employees can raise any issues they may have, therefore reducing the feeling of distance between management and workforce. And when people are separated by geography, they can use video as a smarter way of bridging the gap than email.

Striking the right balance

Taking all this into account, it is important to remember that digital communication plays a vital role in the modern workplace. It is all about striking the right balance by choosing the most appropriate medium for the message you are trying to communicate.

Email and social media are great for delivering a large amount of information to many colleagues but do not lend themselves to a discussion, so it makes sense to evaluate whether what you are communicating is going to induce a response and flood your inbox.

However, when an issue requires true dialogue and consensus, there is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation.

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