The human factor: remembering to talk

You can send an email or an instant message, but sometimes there is no substitute for actually talking to colleagues at work.


As more communication up and down the line at work is done electronically, face to face discussion can easily fall by the wayside. Email, voicemail and instant messaging offer increased speed and volume of communication, but some of the dialogue and personal touch can start to disappear.

A global survey by NFI Research found that 67% of senior executives and managers thought their organisation would be more productive if their superiors communicated more often by personal discussion. But although they wanted more personal discussion from their superiors, the top method of communication for these same business leaders was email.

"Too many people take the easy way out and try and do everything via email and in a lot of cases consume more time on both sides of the equation than they would have by simply picking up the phone or going to see the person," said one survey respondent. "I often find that when I look the other person in the eyes and ask them something I get far more than I ever would over email."

"Personal discussion is the foundation of communications," said another respondent. "Once this foundation is established, it enables all of the other forms of communication. Having a personal connection builds trust and minimises misinterpretation and misunderstanding."

When technology does the talking

Some business leaders lament the fact that many people fall back on technology to do the communicating. "We have started to run our business by using technology instead of good old-fashioned personal communication," said one manager. "We need to take vacations from our BlackBerrys, computers and voicemail and get out and talk to everyone in the organisation. Nothing can replace open and honest face to face communication."

Using email rather than personal discussion can also delay decision making. "I find that many executives avoid conversation because they may be forced to make a decision or express an opinion," said one survey respondent. "If they can keep communications within email, they can continually pass the buck around or back without having to commit. Management by failure to act may be the new favoured process."

In other cases, communicating via technology can be effective. "Instant messages and email are communication accelerators," said one executive. "Discussion databases are more efficient for larger groups. But there is no substitute for in-person communication when appropriate."

"Our organisation uses DVDs as a medium to distribute corporate messages to significant segments of the workforce and it is effective," said another.

Consider context and purpose

The key is to use the correct communication method at the right time. "When give and take is required, there is no form of communication that works better than getting out of one's chair and speaking to the person face to face," said one manager. "If personal discussion is not an option, the telephone or web conferencing is an acceptable second choice. If you aren't concerned about the response, then email, text message and memos work fine for pronouncements from on high."

"We're beginning to learn that different methods of communication are more effective at certain tasks than others," said another survey respondent. "Email is great for scheduling and confirming meetings, phone is good for quick conversations that require two-way communications and a memo is preferred for long background pieces. In-person and scheduled meetings are always the best for any discussion requiring true dialogue and consensus."

With so much to do at work, it is not always easy to find time for personal discussion. However, in the long term, face to face communication just might ensure that communication is clear and understood.

Chuck Martin is an author and lecturer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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