A future of digital communication…but at what cost?

The pandemic has seen a huge boom in digital meetings; products and services are now predominantly ordered and delivered online, and networking meetings currently take place in virtual rooms. 

Much of this has been necessary, since the virus marooned us at home – but if the experts are to be believed, we were heading towards ‘digital workplaces’ anyway. The pandemic only speeded things up. 

There’s no doubt that digital meetings, etc. are convenient. Many employers would be crazy not to consider the cost savings of their staff working some, or all, of their hours from home when things return to normal (if this is practical).  

Currently, 70% of our communication is digital. This statistic isn’t just made up of Zoom meetings, but also the information we consume (e.g. videos, blogs, emails). Nowadays, many companies converse with their customers digitally, through social media, live chat and contact forms on websites. 

Gone are the days when a salesperson visited your house, sat with your family and spent a little time establishing rapport before running through their sales patter. How many times have you seen the words ‘know, like, trust’ linked with in-person networking – where the emphasis is on building relationships with people? 

Can the same, solid connections be made when physical distance and digital screens come into play?  

Trust nosedives a staggering 80% online, which means entrepreneurs, salespeople, brands – indeed, anyone – must work harder to establish trust when communicating digitally. Consider that 93% of our communication is non-verbal; it’s no surprise to find that it’s harder to forge relationships from behind a screen where our body language is restricted. 

Although convenient, working from home has its challenges. Few houses are designed to include a purpose-built office; most people have worked from their kitchen table or out of a bedroom during the pandemic. Household furniture is not typically ergonomic, and whilst we’ve had no choice in lockdown to use what we have already, permanently working from home may cause physical as well as mental problems further down the line. 

Innovation suffers when a team works separately; studies show that low, or no, collaboration between employees can result in a 90% drop in new ideas. No new ideas = no new products. No new ideas = no challenging of the status quo, which could lead to money being unnecessarily wasted (which wipes out any savings companies may see from having a home-based team). No new ideas or innovation and businesses risk becoming stagnant, their growth impacted. 

The fluidity of work alters when a team is split up. Decisions become laboured. Employees can simply approach co-workers at their desks for instant clarification/help when everyone is in the office; communicating only via phone or digitally has its problems.  

People working from home tend to work at their own pace, which may not fit into the traditional 9am – 5pm (unless this is insisted upon by their manager – even then, it’s difficult (and possibly unfair) to enforce). Whilst working from home can make a person’s work/life balance much easier, it may not help their colleagues should they need to get hold of them quickly.  

Take this example: Colleague One needs an instant decision from Colleague Two to be able to move on with their work. As Colleague One emails their co-worker for an urgent response, they have no idea that Colleague Two is in the queue at Morrison’s, or in the middle of a forest enjoying a stroll with the family. Colleague Two sees the email in their inbox via their smartphone, but they don’t open it and believe it’s something they can deal with when they’re next in front of their screen (they see no harm in taking advantage of the sunshine with their family, knowing they can catch up on work in the evening when the kids are in bed). When they do eventually respond to Colleague One, the latter has powered down for the day and set off for a socially distanced visit to their friends’. A decision that would be instant within a shared office environment could take 24 hours or more – how can that not have an impact on operations?! 

On the flipside, and in defence of Colleague Two’s decision to be flexible with their working hours, not every piece of communication has to be answered or acted upon right away. So, how can a team and their manager ensure urgent decisions are actioned, whilst also trusting everyone to manage their time effectively and fairly when working from and living in the same space? 

Maybe a kind of communication shorthand would help. Typing 3H (3 hours) in the subject line could indicate that a response is needed before the morning or afternoon ends. If a reply is needed, but it’s not as crucial, emails could state 2D (2 days), for example, which gives the recipient time to absorb the information and issue a response around their own plans. Some messages are simply information only, where no response is necessary – these could therefore have NNTR (no need to respond) in the subject line.  

This method allows sender and recipient(s) to organise their workload based on urgency; they can then choose to do a bit of shopping during the day and catch up on an evening if priorities allow. After all, convenience is the number one benefit of working from home. Flexibility is key to this. 

A drawback of home-working, however, is the isolation. Organisational commitment can dip up to 50% if employees feel disengaged from the rest of their team. Their investment into their work can suffer, as can relationships with colleagues. Though it may be seen as slacking off, ‘water cooler moments’, according to statistics, are actually vital to team bonding and cohesion. Commonalities and shared interests – even if the subject is only last night’s telly – help people to connect and relationships strengthen. 

Managers should therefore encourage virtual tea breaks/get-togethers via Zoom, where challenges can be discussed as a team, ideas can be shared, and last night’s telly can be dissected if need be. Managers should also schedule virtual one-to-ones with each individual member of the team, even if they already have a packed workload themselves. The reason being, it’s not easy to see if someone is struggling when they’re not in the office with you; don’t let out of sight equal out of mind. A quick, confidential catch up and support (if needed) could make all the difference and boost an employee’s mood and commitment to their role. 

With local outbreaks calling for lockdown measures to be reintroduced, we could be working from home for much, much longer than we may have first thought – perhaps even permanently. With the right approach, however, there’s no reason why managers/employers can’t get the best from their people in today’s digital world.