We’re living in a digital age, where we rely on technology in our social lives, in our relationships and at work.
Between email, social media apps, instant messaging, and video chat, there’s no denying just how valuable technology has become for communicating with friends, family and co-workers.
In the workplace, agile working isn’t a new idea. Many businesses have embraced a more flexible approach to work, allowing their employees to work where, when and how best suits the work they’re doing. Technology has been key to agile working, with software like Slack, Skype and Zoom facilitating virtual meetings, enabling staff to collaborate remotely, and management to send important messages with the click of a button.
But even for businesses that already encouraged agile working, and for employees who are comfortable working remotely and using digital channels, nothing could have prepared us for the age of social distancing, and how important virtual communication would become to our work. As many teams work fully remotely for the first time, technology has replaced our morning coffee catch-ups, lunch break chats, team meetings, all-hands and weekly round-ups.
So, what’s going to happen in the future? Will businesses revert to mostly face-to-face communication, or will virtual working still be a key part of our lives? And moving forward, will every business need to be more flexible at work?
Not all digital communication is created equal. Most people would agree that a video call is superior to audio-only and email, especially when team members are talking to each other. Being able to look at someone as you speak to them is closer to a real-life conversation than any other virtual tool, and this has been vital to many companies (including ours) at this time.
Tech at work has allowed people to do jobs they might not have been able to 20 years ago with relative ease. The fact that we can pick up a laptop, open an application and speak to a colleague across the world in a matter of seconds allows us to work efficiently wherever we are.
There are several benefits of virtual communication. It’s convenient, time-saving, flexible, and can be cost-effective, as companies are able to use less desk space. The use of digital tools slots perfectly into an agile way of working, as employees are easily able to work remotely, join virtual meetings and watch company presentations from their kitchen table.
There are definitely shifts in the way people work when everything is online, and the jury’s out on whether these are positive or negative. A survey by Randstad US and Future Workplace found that 80% of workers said communicating virtually has made them more reactive than strategic in their daily work. Their findings echo what a lot of people are saying at the moment: that their day involves more calls and catch-ups than they would have in the office. As a result, people are less focused on long-term projects and are instead working call-to-call on new projects.
There are clearly several advantages of virtual communication, and digital tools are especially important in a climate where we might not be able to do our jobs otherwise.
But now that face-to-face communication in an office is possible again, will businesses choose to keep a virtual approach, or revert to pre-pandemic styles of communication?
Face-to-face communication is not just important in business for client calls, but also for cultivating a strong company culture and sense of teamwork. For a long time, it’s been the case that going into an office is standard practice for people working in what we call ‘desk jobs’. Many of these types of jobs involve communicating with others professionally through meetings, catch-ups, reviews, and in a personal sense too. Especially over the last decade, there’s been an increasing focus on company culture and employee engagement, and how these can drive business success.
So, when we ask the question ‘How can I improve face-to-face communication?’, we’re not only referring to having in-person meetings, but also to the other aspects of work that help employees form bonds with their colleagues and engage more with their work.
At the moment, as many people are being required to work from home, it’s easy to think that we’re only now discussing the value of face-to-face communication. In reality, people have been talking about it for a while.
In 2016, the Harvard Business Review posted an article, ‘If work is digital, why do we still go to the office?’ Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel thought that ‘even if we can work from anywhere, that does not mean we want to. We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, to generate ideas, and to pool talents and perspectives. Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work.’ They concluded that digital communication wouldn’t be able to replace the value of face-to-face communication in business – and that was 6 years ago.
In 2022, it seems that still, for many people, working virtually doesn’t allow for the same creativity and communication – and it isn’t something they could sustain forever.
There’s been lots of research on the value of face-to-face meetings vs virtual meetings. With new advancements in technology all the time, it’s now easier to dial in, make eye contact, and speak to people over video chat. Tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime run seamlessly, allowing teams to meet in much the same way as they would in an office. Many employees will be used to video chatting — they’ll have done so with clients, or if they’ve worked from home before — so it won’t be completely alien.
Even so, having every call over video can be challenging. Everyone who’s used Zoom will have experienced the awkward moment when someone talks over you. Getting your point across can be difficult, especially on a group call. Aside from setting out a clear schedule and having one person lead, it can be hard to form a clear set up so that no one interrupts each other. Sometimes, meetings require more collaboration than just one person leading, such as brainstorming sessions. Real life communication works both ways, and this is why face to face meetings are so important in the workplace. Some of the advantages of face-to-face meetings are being able to communicate clearly, gauge body language, save time and increase efficiency.
Not everyone is best friends with their co-workers; for some, the extent of their work relationships is a ‘hello’ in the morning and an occasional chat by the coffee machine. But either way, face-to-face communication at work can play a big part in employees’ day to day.
Building connections with colleagues ensures that employees feel part of something. Even a quick conversation at lunch can help staff feel closer to their colleagues, more comfortable, and therefore more engaged in their work.
This is more difficult to achieve over video or phone calls. One of the key advantages of face-to-face communication at work is that it allows you to perceive thoughts and feelings. No matter how much you focus on making eye contact over video, it’s always going to be more difficult to understand body language and facial expressions. This can put a strain on work relationships and make effective communication at work more difficult.
Many companies are making sure they keep their company culture going in the age of social distancing, creating a remote community over Zoom or Slack. This is valuable, but it does raise an important question: are people talking in the same way they would at work, or at a social event? You can’t speak to the person next to you as you would do in a circle, as everyone has to listen to one person speak. In this way, it doesn’t mimic a real-life conversation.
There are teams who all worked remotely long before this happened, but they still aim to meet up every now and again. Zapier is an entirely remote team, and their advice for others is that ‘in-person interaction is valuable for any team. There is definitely something unique that happens when teammates can work on something in-person.’
There’s a reason remote companies still encourage face-to-face meetings. Although there are benefits of digital communication in the workplace, if you’ve never met members of your team, or hardly speak to them face-to-face, it’s far more difficult to feel part of something, and to engage with your co-workers. So, while virtual collaboration provides a useful workaround now, it’s probably not possible to sustain a completely virtual company culture forever.
There are benefits of virtual communication tools and technology that allow us to do our jobs efficiently. With the click of a button, we can catch-up with team members, or speak to clients and colleagues working in different countries over phone or video. This time has taught us, so far, that we can work remotely. It’s perfectly possible to social distance and work effectively using the power of technology. However, there are aspects of virtual communication at work that make it more difficult to sustain long-term – mainly in terms of team collaboration.
With our team, we’ll continue to use digital tools in the sense of agile working, but we’ll relish the face-to-face work and in-person meetings, team brainstorms, monthly all-hands and socials, that help us stay connected and collaborative at work. There are benefits of face-to-face communication that are hard to ignore.
Moving forward, many more businesses might embrace a more agile way of working, and digital tools that have been used during this time will still be used a lot in future. “We’ll definitely see some shifts in attitudes and workplace culture that will ultimately result in organizations being more flexible and accommodating of different work styles,” says Chris Kozup, CEO of Aruba.
Kozup makes it clear that companies have been forced to work remotely, whether they were ready for it or not. This has not only made businesses want to be more prepared but has shown many that they can work remotely. So, while the future of work might look more flexible, it is unlikely to look completely remote. Despite the advantages of virtual business, no digital tool can replace the sense of community and belonging that come with face-to-face communication — we are humans after all.