Is Technology Killing Social Communication at Work?

Posted March 07, 2016
Social Interaction

Is Technology Killing Social Communication at Work?

You’re probably familiar with this scenario: you’re at your desk checking your work email when a new one pops up. It says something along these lines: "Fancy going for a drink after work? A new bar just opened across the road - thought it'd be fun to try it. Bill."

You turn and look across your office. There on the other side of your cubical, just 10 feet away with his back turned to you, is Bill himself. He just sent you an email instead of getting up from his desk, walking across that vast expanse of floor between your two desks and asking you in person.

What do you do next? A) Bellow across the office, "Hey, Bill! Yes, I’d love to go to the pub with you!" B) Wait till you cross paths at the coffee machine or in the canteen and give him your answer then? Or do you, C) decide it's simply easier to reply to his invitation via the same method?

So you email him back, even you know this will simply spark a new email exchange. By the time you’ve confirmed what time you both finish work, who else you should ask to join you, and so on, you’ve spent thirty minutes on this simple exchange and your plan to finish your project before lunchtime is shot to pieces.

Is there a simpler way to deal with such an exchange?

It's Oh So Quiet…

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: in today's technology-saturated work world, are we deliberately avoiding personal interaction? Are we gaining anything by sacrificing our physical voices, the subtle clues given off by facial expressions, the minute signals revealed by body language and in gestures, in exchange for the supposed convenience of impersonal electronic forms of communication like email, IM, messenger and chat?

For so many of us, face-to-face communication seems increasingly to be a dying art. We text, we email, we Tweet, we message each other on social media - or rather, we simply "Facebook" one another, the noun having become an accepted verb.

Yet communicating with each other face-to-face is the very basis of human contact. It is how we form and build relationships, whether in our personal or our business lives. There are numerous ways, both overt and subtle, in which personal communication enables us to establish trust in one another, to express our ideas and opinions, reduce and clear up misunderstandings, and so on.

One of the main issues with digital communication is how impersonal it can often be. If you try to make a work email sound friendly or try to add a personal touch with an Emoticon 'smiley face,' you risk being seen as unprofessional, whereas something as simple as a smile during a chat can alleviate tension or encourage a shy co-worker to express their views. Similarly, if you are explaining a new idea to a colleague face-to-face, you can usually immediately gauge how interesting or relevant they find it by their unconscious body language. Are they glancing at their watch, gaping vacantly or fiddling with their phone? If so, you know you haven't captured their interest, so you can change what you're saying or how you're expressing it to make it more interesting.

At the other end of the communication spectrum, emailing back and forth can be extremely time-consuming and rife with the potential for misunderstanding, whereas a face-to-face meeting with your friend in Accounting or your boss enables you to instantly gauge their reactions so you can thrash out the details of a project or put forward suggestions quickly and efficiently.

The rapid exchange of ideas which happens when people get together in one room to brainstorm encourages creativity, as well as improving working relationships. How can we duplicate that in the electronic world?

Information Overload

Of course, there are many advantages to the quiet but convenient world of e-communication. Speed is an obvious one. If you need to send an important message to a client or a business associate, whether they be in another department or another part of the world, you can shoot them a message and not worry about the fact that they may be in a different time zone. If you send the email and it’s 4pm your time but midnight their time, they’ll open the message first thing in the morning when they wake up, whereas a business phone call at midnight probably wouldn’t go down too well.

In the days before everyone had at least one mobile device, the disadvantage of email was that there was no guarantee that the person on the receiving end would read it straightaway. But now there's a plethora of electronic methods of verifying that your message has been read, from the 'Read' receipts sent out by certain forms of email, to the little check mark icon you get when you send a text on many newer smartphones.

One of the drawbacks to all this speedy instant communication is that the time saved in sending it is balanced out by all the time lost in reading through, prioritizing and organizing the vast number of emails and messages we each receive over the course of a typical day. Imagine finding the same number of letters in your mailbox each morning that you receive via your various inboxes each day!

And then of course there's spam, the bane of our digital existence everywhere. Even with a good spam filter, electronic junk can still fill up our inboxes till we lose the will to live, overwhelming and obscuring important emails from the boss under a constant barrage of electronic junk. There is no in-person equivalent of spam (unless of course you count Christina in accounting, who begins and ends each work discussion by talking for a good fifteen minutes about her cat’s latest escapades.)

Social Interaction

Information Addiction

The problem is that all this electronic communication can take over our lives, not just at work but in our leisure time too. Look around any bar or restaurant and you're guaranteed to see people with their heads down and their cell phones out, texting, tweeting or updating their Facebook statuses, whilst ignoring their companions. Go out for that drink with "Bill" and friends, and at least one of you will most likely spend at least part of the evening gazing down at a portable screen.

There have been many studies into digital addiction, and with each new trendy gadget released, the demands on our time and attention grow steadily heavier. The slightest vibration in our pocket and we simply can't resist the temptation to pull out our devices to see who's contacting us, no matter how stimulating the company of those who are actually right there next to us. Social interaction is starting to suffer, not to mention common courtesy and good manners. Imagine that you're chatting to a friend when they suddenly spot another acquaintance across the room and get up mid-conversation to go and chat to them instead. How rude! But we accept it when our companion suddenly says, "Do you mind if I quickly check this message?" and whips out their smartphone.

Even if it's work-related, there's really no excuse for prioritizing an electronic message over an actual face-to-face conversation. Some companies are beginning to address the problem of information overload and its inherent demands and stresses. For instance, Volkswagen fairly recently implemented a policy of deactivating emails on its employees' mobile devices during non-working hours so they would no longer be able to spend personal time reading and responding to work-related emails.

But for many employers, the thought of their workers being ‘always on’ and ready to respond to work issues even while out of the office, in their own (unpaid) time, seems just too good of a deal to pass up.

Downfalls, Pitfalls and Pratfalls

On top of its impersonal nature, e-communication has a number of potential downfalls. The most serious is its vulnerability. A simple hard-drive crash can erase many years of work, not to mention current in-progress projects which you may have put dozens or even hundreds of hours of manpower into. Viruses and malware can infect your company's networks and can spread in seconds, often through attachments which can be easily disguised to look like urgent messages coming straight from your manager or boss. And confidential messages can unintentionally go to an incorrect email address, or be intercepted by hackers.

Then, of course, there's the dreaded pitfall which lurks with evil intent awaiting any lapse in concentration - you accidentally send an email or message intended for one person to someone else. Or - horror of horrors - you unintentionally copy your whole department, including your boss, into an email-chain which makes disparaging comments about - yes, your boss. It's the electronic equivalent of ‘dishing the dirt’ on a disliked colleague to your friend in the restroom, only to have the person under discussion emerge from a nearby cubicle.

Having made an embarrassing faux pas or two myself, I know how easy it is for others to do the same. What if the reason for "Bill" keeping his back turned while you read his email, with not even a friendly glance to see if you had received it, was that he had sent it to you or copied you in by accident? What if you reply accepting the invitation, only to see his shoulders slump with the realization that you will be coming, when the truth is that he and his real friends just wanted to gossip about you behind your back? Okay, so this is probably not the case, but experience of both sending and receiving misdirected messages can lead to uncertainty and even paranoia, the more of these unfortunate incidents you experience.

More Communication, Less Connection

According to Paul Booth, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, recent studies show that people are actually becoming more socially engaged and more interactive with each other, but changes in the style of communication we now prefer to use means that we're not meeting face-to-face as often as we once did. "We're tending to prefer mediated communication," he says. "We'd rather email than meet; we'd rather text than talk on the phone."

This means that our personal connection to the people we text or message slowly becomes weaker than it would if we met them in person. "So while we're communicating more, we may not necessarily be building relationships as strongly," says Booth.

A recent article on the website of CorpMedia, a Singapore-based communications agency, also highlighted this change in the ways in which we communicate. It asked whether technology was helping or hindering our ability to spread messages, and concluded that perhaps it isn't doing either.

If we give in to the temptation to spend less and less time on face-to-face interactions, says the author, we risk losing the critical context of our message, so we need to learn ways in which technology can enhance our communication, not dictate it. For instance, a face-to-face meeting could be followed up by an email to all attendees, summarizing all the points made. Or a company which relies on video-conferencing could invite all those who regularly participate to an informal get-together so they can meet and get to know each other in person.

Why It's Not All Bad News

Professor Booth doesn't see the proliferation in communication technology as necessarily having a detrimental effect on social relationships in the long-term. After all, there must have been similar scares about the effects and implications of the telephone when it first arrived on the scene. "As a society we'll be okay - we've always adjusted to new technology," he says. "So whether it's wearable communication media, such as Google Glass, or more cloud computing, we'll change and adapt."

Finally, back to my invitation to after-work drinks with "Bill." How did I finally decide to respond - using new-fangled technology or old-fashioned personal communication? The answer is... with a well-aimed paper dart made of the menu of a different (and better) local cafe. His in-person response - a smile and a thumbs-up raised above the cubical wall dividing us – saved us both a good half hour of emailing.

Now that's something that even the boss would approve of.

Social Interaction


Kate Rhodes is a passionate scholar and advocate of happiness, both at home and in one's career. After working for over a decade in education, including adult literacy and special needs tutoring, she now divides her time between blogging on the subject of careers and work/life balance, and finding her own happiness curled up at home with a good book and a mug of hot tea. A true logophile (lover of words), her idea of perfect happiness is waking up one day to find that every apostrophe in the world is finally in its rightful place.

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