We are all participants in a massive social experiment that began slowly in the 1970s and gathered speed in the past decade with the introduction of the smartphone. We have created a wide variety of digital means of communicating that replace older, slower face-to-face interactions.
But this has a downside. We are worrying about shorter attention spans and wondering if the internet makes us stupid. Worst of all, we are realizing how emotionally empty virtual communications can be. In transferring many of our human interactions to the virtual world, we no long-er get the emotional information, support and reinforcement we used to when communicating face-to-face. In business, this leads to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and a great deal of do-overs, workarounds and relationships to repair.
It’s expensive. It’s inefficient. And the cost in fractured relationships, missed opportunities and lost connections is incalculable.
What’s to be done? Too much of our personal and work lives today rely on the virtual. Most organizations with an international reach couldn’t function without the digital means of communication they use every day. To survive in this brave new digital world, we must begin consciously adding emotional subtext back into our virtual communications. Learning leaders can take a number of actions to help drive this effort.
First, champion virtual training programs in the necessary technologies. Employees need to be trained to use text-based communication modes more astutely, especially when they are the primary means of communication. Establish hierarchies of use among the various kinds of text-based communications and norms to enable each one to be used more precisely. Currently the research shows the error rate of text-based communications is more than 60 percent — that’s too high.
CLOs also can establish a companywide program to determine the right balance of virtual technologies for intra- and inter-company communications. Both managers and employees need to be trained in the right times to use various technologies for maximum effectiveness. For many organizations and teams, this may mean greater use of videoconferencing.
Introduce organizational norms for the length of virtual meetings. Meetings tend to get scheduled in half-hour and hour-long increments out of habit. But many organizations are experimenting with shorter formats for virtual meetings. What can you accomplish in a nine-minute virtual call? How often should a team schedule them? What are the advantages and disadvantages of rethinking the format?
Begin regularly measuring employee engagement against the use of virtual technology. The research shows that as use of virtual technology and remote working goes up, engagement goes down. What does the research show for your company? What can you do to ensure that the shifts in work and communication patterns don’t cause similar problems in your organization?
Champion the habit of learning a new virtual language for the company — one that is consistent with company norms and values. Lacking visual cues, we have a hard time reading other people’s feelings, so make yours clear verbally and train other people to do the same. Say, “I’m excited about everything we’re accomplishing!” Or, “I’m concerned that you don’t seem confident in the third-quarter numbers. How are you really feeling about them?”
Finally, embrace the power of video messages. Face-to-face meetings allow a group to share underlying emotional intent easily. This keeps groups aligned and connected. That connection breaks down in audio meetings. Train leaders to regularly send out 30-second or minute-long video clips of what they’re up to, what’s going on with the organization, and what should be top of mind for employees. This can mean teaching them an informal style and vernacular that doesn’t feel bureaucratic or insincere.
Just as we must learn to be savvy citizens of the “real” business world, we also need to learn the rules and effective behaviors of the virtual business world.
This story first appeared in Workforce’s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.