Is Technology Destroying Communication in the Workplace?

Why are we more connected, yet many feel disconnected? There is no doubt that the COVID-19-induced recession would have been far worse had it not […]

Why are we more connected, yet many feel disconnected?

There is no doubt that the COVID-19-induced recession would have been far worse had it not been for technology. Our ability to communicate and collaborate in real time allowed millions of workers to stay at home and remain productive. Video technology enabled people to connect socially, even though they were apart. We may never know the extent to which communication technology helped to avoid mental health issues caused by enforced isolation.

However, there is a dark side of technology, too. It is rarely discussed or considered. Yet organizations must answer the big question that this dark side poses. Is technology destroying communication in the workplace? Moreover, how can you ensure it doesn’t?

Why communication is important in the workplace

Let’s first look at why effective communication is so important in the workplace.

Good communication is crucial to sharing information

If information is not shared effectively, your people won’t know what they are doing or why they are doing it. Collaboration will be crushed. Innovation will grind to a halt. Obvious, isn’t it? Yet, Dynamic Signal found that almost three quarters of employees feel that they are missing out on company information and news.

Communication shapes attitudes

The better informed you are, the better your attitude is likely to be. Misinformed – or uninformed – employees are distrustful of their employer. They spread gossip and increase resistance to change. Lexicon found that 80% of Americans say that communication with employees is key to developing trust with their employees.

Good communication motivates employees

Clarity of purpose engages employees in vision and mission, and motivates them to go the extra mile. According to a survey by JobsInME, 85% of employees said they’re most motivated when management offers regular updates on company news. Equally damaging, Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report found that only 23% of executives say their companies are excellent at aligning employees’ goals with their organization’s purpose.

Communication is critical to the governance of behavior

Employees must comply with an organization’s policies and procedures. Without these communicated effectively, an organization risks spiraling into pseudo-anarchism – especially the flatter hierarchies prevalent in today’s organizational structures. Salesforce found that 86% of employees and executives cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.

Communication is key to employees working effectively

Clear and concise instructions enable employees to carry out tasks efficiently. Miscommunication leads to tasks taking longer to do and being done below the standards expected. Yet an Interact Survey reported in the Harvard Business Review found that 57% of employees report not being given clear directions, and 69% of managers are not comfortable communicating with the employees in general.

Get your communication strategy right, and your organization will benefit from:

  • Fewer misunderstandings
  • Improved collaboration
  • Higher staff morale and motivation
  • More highly engaged employees
  • Lower employee turnover
  • Improved productivity
  • Better results

The communication journey seen through technological change

Once upon a time, many centuries ago, all communication was verbal and face-to-face. Then humans learned to write, and within just a few centuries we were able to send letters oversea and thousands of miles away. With luck, we would receive news within a couple of weeks. Today we talk instantly, in real time, via video link.

Business has followed a similar path. First, we had memos. Along came the telephone. Then faxes. Emails soon followed – and have stuck. As well as email communication, employees use instant messengers, video conferencing technology, and project management tools that integrate with all your other technology. The world of work has never had such ability to communicate internally and externally.

We are super connected. You only need to look at a few email statistics to see just how connected we are:

  • 293.6 billion emails were processed every day in 2019
  • There are 3.9 billion email users worldwide, with more than 5.5 billion active email accounts
  • The average office worker receives 121 emails per day
  • In 2019, there are nearly 4 billion email users worldwide

And yet, despite all this connectivity, the stats we shared earlier indicate that our workplace communication is failing.

What’s going wrong?

Technology has revolutionized the way we do business and the way we communicate in the workplace. But not all these changes have been positive.

Greater connectivity means that many people never switch off from work. This can cause stress in both personal and professional lives, and causes damaging work/life balance issues that eventually affect a person’s ability to do their work effectively. Here are five more ways in which the use of technology can damage communication in the workplace.

Technology dehumanizes communication

It is easier for people to take on false personas when they are not communicating face-to-face. Emailing, texting and instant messaging give the user a certain amount of anonymity, and behaviors can change. This is especially recognizable with social media use.

Misconstrued messages

80% of message is conveyed by nonverbal communication (body language). Even when we are not sure of the meaning of the words used, it is usually possible to understand the message by contextualizing with nonverbal communication and the verbalized words around it.

In addition, when communicating in writing – especially when we are unsure of our audience – it is more likely that we will write things that are misunderstood culturally. This is becoming more common within remote and geographically dispersed teams. There are nuances in how people are addressed and how tone is conveyed. Even among English speaking countries, differences in language can cause confusion (in England, for example, chips are crisps, and fries are chips).

Communication by technology can be thoughtless

Emails, instant messages, and other communications can be easily forwarded. A difficult message is not reframed for the individual or team to who it is sent. Such messages can damage trust and create emotional responses that are out of character from the recipient.

Technology has eliminated privacy

What is done cannot be undone. An email, video or message on a project management application is there to be retrieved when needed. An emotional response via email may receive a wider audience than intended. No longer are there quiet conversations between conflicted parties which lead to mutual understanding with privacy ensured.

Communication technology can cause social isolation

Organizations are utilizing internal social networks more extensively. These enable connectivity and sharing of information, best practices, and ‘outside work’ topics. Connected people collaborate better, right?

Being connected by technology does not give the same warm feeling as being connected personally. The connections are shallower and less meaningful. Despite the super connectivity today, a study by the Cigna Health Insurance Company fond that loneliness among Americans is at epidemic proportions. We are only just starting to understand the mental health issues related to the social connection that technology affords us. But we don’t need studies to tell us what so many of us already know. The COVID-19 lockdown has brought home our basic human need to be with other people.

Enhancing the positives of technology and eliminating the negatives

Advancing technology is enabling organizations to hire the best talent no matter where it is located. It is empowering greater collaboration than we ever thought possible. People can now work together, on a single connected network in real time. Without the communication technology that we have, the economic damage caused by COVID-19 would have been many times greater.

However, organizations must also understand that technology in communication can have damaging effects. Used without high regard to the message being conveyed and the recipient for which it is intended, that message can be misinterpreted and therefore damaging to individuals, teams, and even the organization.

Over-reliance on technology can lead to people feeling isolated, and this can lead to mental health issues that could otherwise be avoided. There are also privacy issues surrounding online communications, and the issue of how much time we spend receiving, reading, deciphering, and answering communications to us.

To take advantage of all the benefits that technology in communication offers, it is crucial to ensure that organizations implement policies and guidelines for how technology should be used to communicate. Such policies might include:

  • Guidelines that limit the use of email and templates for emails
  • Policies for video conference calls, how they are structured and carried out
  • Providing time and means for social connections
  • Training people to use technology effectively when communicating, including in cultural aspects
  • Providing approved and disapproved language

Technology has the potential to advance and enhance business and the human experience. It is in the hands of business leaders to ensure that this potential is reached – organizational sustainability depends upon it.

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