Simon Ashton on why we must learn to communicate effectively through digital platforms.
Reading time: 4 minutes
Today, technology is so integral to how we communicate within the workplace that many of us simply cannot fathom how businesses managed without emails, social media and video calls.
But while technology undoubtedly provides us an array of platforms for communication, is it helping or hindering our own interpersonal communication skills?
Communication is not the same as collaboration
For me, communication is all about collaboration. Often we use communication and collaboration interchangeably, yet it is important to understand that they are fundamentally very different.
Communication is the act of sharing knowledge, whereas collaboration is the process of working together to achieve an end goal.
If, as revealed by a recent report by Mitel that UK workers spend 70% of their time interacting with each other, why are UK companies losing approximately £4bn every year due to inefficient communication and collaboration?
In my opinion, the problem is that we are too quick to assume that just because we are communicating, it automatically implies that we are also collaborating; and the more digital channels we have at our disposal, the better and more efficient our collaboration will be.
This is wrong – using digital channels does not necessarily lead to effective collaboration.
Read emails aloud before hitting send, and make sure your subject headline clearly states your intent
How many of us are guilty of not getting out of our seats to speak to a colleague nearby about an issue, choosing instead to ‘deal’ with it over email?
It seems absurd to assume that this kind of interaction can create lasting, trusting relationships. If we want technology to support rather than hinder collaboration, we must learn to communicate effectively through digital platforms.
Digital meetings: a help or hindrance?
Companies often resort to technology to save time and money – but are they actually doing so in the long run?
While there are of course immediate savings to be made from a Skype call rather than a face-to-face meeting across town, the brevity and impersonal nature of virtual interactions can often lead to misunderstandings, confusion and hostility. And this can affect the quality of the work delivered, losing potential profits and wasting time.
Intent – the building block for collaborative relationships
When we communicate in person, we exchange a huge amount of information about intent. Why is intent important? Intent is at the core of human interactions. It is the reason we ask ourselves, what are this other person’s motivations? Is this person my friend or foe? Are they someone I can trust?
Expressing intent is a key part of building and maintaining good relationships between colleagues. It helps us assess how others perceive us and how we perceive them.
Our brains hate being deprived of information as it creates uncertainty and, when information is lacking, we often simply assume.
If we do not know someone’s true intent towards us, because we have only spoken to them on the phone or on instant messenger, our survival instinct kicks in and our brains are inclined to presume the worst. And we can find ourselves mistakenly interpreting someone’s intent negatively and misunderstand what it is they want to communicate.
Expressing emotions is key
Optimism resentment, anxiety and happiness – these are some of the key emotions and feelings we express when communicating in person.
During face-to-face conversations, we don’t just use words to relay intent and emotion, we use body language and expressions; even the environment we are in can impact a conversation.
Yet these do not translate well in text conversations. Our busy workload often means that we resort to abrupt, abbreviated messages at the expense of expressing emotion.
When communicating online, how often do we really think of the person receiving our information on the other end and how they could interpret our message?
So, what can businesses do?
The secret to productive collaboration is the fostering of a culture which values and promotes effective and efficient communication skills.
Learning how to use new technologies effectively is a skill in and of itself and is definitely not one-size-fits-all. Each person’s comfort with new technology will vary and employers must help their employees to work out the best digital channels for them, both individually and as a team.
Introducing workshops and sharing resources which highlight the difference between online and offline communications can go a long way in improving collaboration and encourage individuals to look at how they communicate with their colleagues and clients and how they can improve.
When interactions in person are not possible, strategies can be adopted to replicate a face-to-face connection.
A good start is reading emails aloud before hitting send, and making sure your subject headline clearly states your intent.
Skype calls rather than group emails can recreate the environment of a face-to-face interaction, and emojis on instant messaging can inject emotion and humanity into digital communications.
Another piece of advice? Pick up the phone and avoid time wasted playing email ping-pong. All relationships need to be constantly reinforced with human interaction, and a telephone conversation or video message are great options.
As technological communications hurtle forwards, employers and employees must meet these changes with a renewed understanding of the way we communicate both on and offline; only this way will we truly collaborate effectively in the workplace.
About the author
Simon Ashton is head of learning and development at Phoenix Leaders