The Importance Of Face-To-Face Communication In A Hybrid Workplace

Thierry Breton, CEO of information technology company Atos, announced in 2011 that the company, which had over 74,000 employees, would ban email. He reasoned that people are overwhelmed by so many email messages they don’t have time to do their jobs. It just creates additional work to respond to this avalanche and leads to unnecessary overtime. The goal was to move communication to more real-time means like phones, video conferencing, and instant messaging. Breton didn’t eliminate email entirely, but the communication indeed switched to more real-time.

Atos employees sent, on average, 60 emails a day which amounted to the number of emails produced by all employees in a year to over 1,000,000,000. That is a lot of emails to write and read. Statistics showed that 73% of Atos employees spend more than one-quarter of their work time managing email. So the shift to a wiki-style social collaboration tool made sense. It replaced quantity with quality.

“To evaluate a team’s ability to build a strong working culture, you must consider the frequency, type, and quality of the interactions.”

To evaluate a team’s ability to build a strong working culture, you need to consider the frequency, type, and quality of the interactions. Talking once a day will have a different impact from talking once a month. Having one-on-one meetings will have a different effect from having big team meetings. Talking just about a business will feel different from trying to get to know each other.

Having the right type of good quality interactions frequently enough will lead to a feeling of belonging. Everyone will feel valued and cared about. Employees will be engaged and loyal. Being excluded or feeling excluded and experiencing professional isolation has the same impact as feeling lonely. It can lead to low productivity, non-existent career prospects, and mental health issues.

Social presence and communication

There is a concept called social presence. Social presence requires intimacy, a feeling of interpersonal closeness, and immediacy, a feeling of emotional connection and psychological closeness. They are transferred by eye contact, smile, general body language, personal topics of conversation, facial expressions, how close people stand to each other, and what they are wearing. In-person face-to-face communication is then the gold standard of social presence. Any form of remote communication is suboptimal as we are losing vital cues from body language, facial expressions, or voice nuances.

“Social presence requires intimacy, a feeling of interpersonal closeness, and immediacy, a feeling of emotional connection and psychological closeness. In-person face-to-face communication is then the gold standard of social presence.”

The next aspects coming to play are the efficiency and effectiveness of communication and social presence. The use of suitable media can achieve efficiency. But it needs to be done in a way that will allow for the effectiveness of the communication. Some communication can be quite efficient over email, but its effectiveness can be very low. The best communication channel is always the one that is the most efficient without sacrificing effectiveness. For anything controversial, where there is an expectation of questions, concerns, and dissent, or that can have a high emotional charge, in-person communication is often most effective.

“The best communication channel is always the one that is the most efficient without sacrificing effectiveness.”

Rich and lean media in communication

Thousands of years ago, there was no choice in how to communicate. No post office, no emails, no video calls. Humans evolved in a media-rich environment, talking to each other face-to-face. That is how we are wired, and whether we want to admit it or not, that is how the best communication occurs.

Richness is defined by the amount of information, social presence, and cues it can transfer. Leaner media are often asynchronous. The more rich media, the more synchronous or real-time communication comes to play.

“Humans evolved in a media-rich environment, talking to each other face-to-face. That is how we are wired and how the best communication occurs.”

Media richness theory, or information richness theory, describes a medium’s ability to reproduce information sent over it. It was first introduced by Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel in 1986. They compared media such as email, phone calls, and video conferencing. The theory states that the richer the communication media, the more effectively they transmit the information. The richest is face-to-face communication, then video, phone, personal documents and emails, impersonal documents, and the least rich are the numeric documents. The richest communication provides immediate feedback and cues on how the message is being received. Daft and Lengel stated that richer communication channels should be used when there is a need to reduce uncertainty or equivocality related to the task at hand.

A face-to-face conversation is the richest form of communication and generally the most effective. Though not necessarily the most efficient, it may not even be the most desirable by both parties in the conversation. It also depends on their preferences and what they expect from the communication.

Language barriers in communication

All this gets even more complicated when you consider cultural and language differences. There is often a language barrier in real-time conversation that can make it less effective. It will build trust and create a better sense of belonging but it can also lead to misunderstandings when people can’t follow what is being said. Written asynchronous communication can be better. The person receiving it has more time to read through and translate at their own speed. This also means that your communication with teams who are not native to the language used for communication should be unambiguous. You must avoid colloquialisms, cultural references, or jokes that might be misunderstood.

In globally distributed teams where people speak different languages, there is usually one official company language, often English, used for most communication. It brings many problems starting with uneven knowledge of the language and ending with creating splinter cells that use local languages, thus excluding others who don’t speak the language and isolating themselves in the process, creating an us-versus-them culture.

“Non-native speakers can be seen as less competent as their lack of language proficiency can be confused with the lack of job competency.”

Even native speakers may create problems as they may use colloquialisms and make it difficult for non-native speakers to follow, thus creating a power advantage. They may even see non-native speakers as less competent as they confuse language proficiency with job competency.

To create a truly inclusive environment, everyone must watch out for how they talk. Native speakers should use language easily understood by everyone on the team. Non-native speakers should avoid creating small cells that use their native language and exclude those who don’t speak it. Managers then need to watch out for hints that differences in fluency levels create problems in collaboration and relationships. Making sure that even those less proficient in the language are heard is extremely important, regardless of how much discomfort it creates for everyone at the moment.

Everyone needs to be extra careful not to use their local language when around others who don’t speak it. It is the surest way to exclude and alienate others and can kill the sense of belonging. It is not just the manager’s job to ensure an inclusive workplace. Everyone on the team needs to play their role and don’t make the problem worse.

Social tools in the organization

Various social tools like Slack or Teams can significantly enhance communication, collaboration, and a sense of shared identity and belonging in the organization.

In Remote Work Revolution, Tsedal Neeley points to studies by researchers from Stanford University that focused on the advantages of implementing social tools in the organization. When employees shared both work-related and non-work-related posts, it led to higher engagement with the social platform and people were getting an opportunity to get to know each other better. Browsing through the non-work-related content that is inherently more interesting for human beings led to a bigger read-through of the work-related content. So mixing both types of content allowed for building trust and spreading professional knowledge.

However, while this worked initially, the non-work-related content would eventually dry out as employees worried their managers would consider it excessive. When the personal content disappeared, so did the usage of the platform and read-through of the professional content. It stopped being effective.

This means that when implementing social tools, the management must be very clear on how and why they should be used. It is essential to be specific, especially on non-work-related content. The anxiety will disappear if employees see that the management visibly supports it and ideally contributes themselves. As with many other things in the organization, managers must lead by example and model the expected behavior. Commenting or liking work-related and non-work-related posts is important to show that management sees the platform as more than a channel for corporate announcements.

Digital exhaustion

Unfortunately, social tools come with a price. Digital exhaustion in a virtual environment is real. It is not the technology per se that is the problem. It is a fact that we treat communication over technology the same way we treat communication in person. And we shouldn’t.

You may stack your meetings one after another with no gap. This works in the real world as you have at least a couple of minutes to walk from one room to another, rest your eyes, and switch the context in your mind. You don’t have this small break in the virtual world unless you intentionally create it. A good way to go about it is to always schedule meetings for a couple of minutes shorter than you would have done in the past. Make them 25 minutes instead of 30, or 55 minutes instead of 1 hour long. The five minutes gap will help you to refresh and refocus.

Putting it all together

Nothing beats face-to-face interactions. Create at least semi-regular opportunities to get the whole team together and interact in person. That way, you help build a strong trust and collaboration culture.

For the rest of the time, the richer social media that can be used, the better. Just make sure you don’t fall into the trap of Zoom fatigue and digital exhaustion. Learn to vary the type and frequency of your communication, and don’t get forced into all-day video calls. Sometimes a voice-only call can be all that is needed. And sometimes, even the dreaded email can get the job done.

What is your take on the topic? What are your thoughts on communication in a hybrid workplace? Do you prefer video calls over the phone? Do you try to use email instead? What about instant messaging? What is the most effective type of communication for various situations?

Photo: geralt /

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Categories: Communication, Leadership

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1 reply

  1. Well said Tomas. “Nothing beats face to face interaction”

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