Technology has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. Where we once wrote letters to people who lived a time zone away from us, now we can log into Zoom or Google Meet and chat with them as though we’re in the same room. Email communication is now a cornerstone for many businesses and central to marketing campaigns. In fact, with the increase in remote work over the past few years, some team members may only know their co-workers via email and video chat.
When you unravel the complexities of technology, you see its purpose is twofold: to effect change worldwide and to simplify and enhance our everyday working lives. On the surface, the capabilities technology brings to our offices are overwhelmingly positive. It offers convenience, collaborative power and connectivity. But in allowing us instant communication in the digital world, is technology damaging interpersonal communication?
Technological advances over the last few years can benefit workplace communication, especially if you and your colleagues aren’t physically in the same place. Here are some of the upsides of relying on the latest communication tools.
There used to be a delay in connecting with someone via phone or fax, but today’s innovative communication apps integrated into your business’s systems allow you to communicate with someone immediately. If there is an issue, all it takes is a quick Slack or Teams message to ping your co-worker for help. With the proper technology, every employee becomes easily accessible as long as they have an internet connection. You can send messages and receive messages at any time and from anywhere. The most common workplace communication apps facilitating this immediacy include Slack, Campfire, Google and Wrike. [Related article: How to Use Slack for Workplace Communication.]
In today’s digital world, it’s optimal for businesses to be able to operate remotely. Technology like Zoom, Google Meet and other video conferencing platforms let employees work from anywhere without sacrificing visual communication with co-workers and managers. While being remote has drawbacks, including a limited employee culture, it’s valuable for a business to be mobile and flexible in this day and age. [Learn more about the best video conferencing services.]
Miscommunication becomes more likely when you rely on people to deliver messages – just think of the classic “telephone game,” in which a message gets distorted as it’s repeated from person to person. Forty years ago, clients or customers had to call receptionists to get in touch with a business owner. If a receptionist or assistant misunderstood what a client was trying to say, companies could miss out on valuable information, leading to a potentially distasteful experience for your customer.
In contrast, when you send someone a message digitally, they will receive the precise words you intended (not accounting for any misinterpretations, of course) and can refer back to your text as needed. Your message is also far less likely to get lost than paper-based communications.
Technology can be used to communicate directly with customers and internally across your organization. Some businesses use chatbots to talk with customers through social media or their websites. Other companies are developing their own digital communication apps so their clients can ask questions, leave comments, and offer suggestions. This direct communication means customers feel heard and you can better understand their responses to your products.
Other communication tools mean employees can display their ideas internally through presentations with PowerPoint or Google Slides, which promotes collaboration. They can share these presentations in online video meetings or in person through interactive displays. Whether all participants are in the same room or not, you aren’t limited to verbal communication.
For all the ways technology is an asset for communications, there are also downsides to relying on digital methods over in-person interactions and paper-and-pen exchanges.
Technology fosters efficiency – or at least, it seems to. Chat platforms and email empower us to start a conversation in a matter of keystrokes from the comfort of our desks. We don’t have to walk across the office or take a multihour train ride to meet a colleague in person.
Given the apparent time savings, it’s tempting to use email and other messaging platforms in place of in-person communication, but we must be cognizant of the instances where technology may not be the most productive communication method. For example, you may think emailing a company update to your entire office is the fastest way to get your point across to the greatest number of people. But here’s the problem: Managers and other employees will likely have follow-up questions, so you’ll end up spending more time fielding replies than if you had called a company-wide meeting to discuss it all in the first place.
To increase productivity and efficiency, workers must be mindful of how they spend every minute of their days. Technology’s job is to streamline your day-to-day schedule and free up time so you can focus on more pressing issues. Yet sometimes people end up overextending these benefits to save time and use technology to replace crucial aspects of their jobs – like cultivating relationships with fellow employees.
Employees may have follow-up questions after receiving a digital communication, leading to an online back-and-forth that takes up time that could have been spent working on a project. What could have taken one in-person conversation might instead require multiple time-consuming emails.
Emails, texts and chats are all useful for instantaneous correspondence not restricted by location, but as passive communication tools, they can be easily misinterpreted. Some people don’t have the same knack for communicating over digital platforms as they do in face-to-face interactions.
If someone sends you a message in all caps, does that mean they are mad or upset? If someone sends you a terse reply, are they brushing you off because they don’t like your idea or just trying to move through tasks quickly? Effective communication relies on eye contact and tone of voice as much as it does on words. Because online communications are mediated by a screen, digital communicators often lose the contextual information they need to have a productive and clear discussion – and thus are unable to collaborate as effectively as they might have in person.
When we under-communicate through technology or fail to communicate well, it leaves a gaping hole that employees will try to fill with speculation rather than informed understanding. Technology simplifies communication, but we are often left to make bigger conclusions with smaller amounts of information. Consider the nuances of your writing before you interact with someone online because abridged interactions can have serious consequences. [Learn whether emojis should be included in business communications.]
Nonverbal communication, such as tone of voice and facial expressions, helps people interpret what someone is saying and their corresponding emotions. Some technological communication eliminates these cues, leading to misinterpretation.
Technology allows us to easily connect with people around the globe, but what about the people right next to us? Instead of meeting with a friend for coffee, we’re quick to pick up our phones and send a text to ask how they’ve been. On a family member’s birthday, we call to wish them a happy birthday rather than stopping by their house with a handwritten card. As face-to-face interactions ebb, our in-person smiles have been replaced by emojis that seem more like punctuation than emotional cues.
The same is true at the office. Most of our interactions nowadays happen over a computer or phone rather than in person. When we’re more familiar with our employees as usernames or email addresses and not as individuals, that’s a problem. How can we sit behind a computer screen and expect to nurture quality relationships? We can’t – communication needs to be more than just short phrases, abbreviations and emojis.
If strong communication is stripped away, we also eliminate the most valuable components of a great team: collaboration, loyalty, engagement and camaraderie. Worse, the distance of the screen and the facelessness of an online chat may make colleagues feel less empathetic toward each other and ultimately cultivate a culture of isolation.
While technology like smartphones and other mobile devices allow us to communicate with others when we’re away from our computers, they can also distract us from important tasks. For instance, drivers become distracted when trying to talk or text on their cell phones.
Technology can also be a distraction in the office, as messaging is often used for both personal and professional purposes. If someone uses the same smartphone for both personal and professional communication, their personal messaging will likely interfere with their work tasks over the course of the day. The advent of social media means the risk of mobile device distractions increases exponentially.
Perhaps the issue boils down to this: It can be hard to live with communication technology and just as hard to live without it. Whether technology enhances or hurts your communication and how it affects the workplace depends on how you use it. Here are tips for crafting the right technology-driven communication style for your company, given the pros and cons highlighted above.
There may be seasons when in-person communication is easier to pull off than other times. The reverse is also true. Continually assess your company’s communication methods and the technology you use and be adaptable as conditions change. Tech-driven communication can be the right way to go if you know when and how to use those tools. When we use technology mindfully and purposefully, it shouldn’t strip away our communication skills – it should make us stronger communicators.
Aisha Babangida contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.