Did you check the weather app on your phone before getting dressed for work? Or turn on your favorite news station to catch up on current events over your morning coffee?
Did you have your first exchange with a co-worker over Slack – before ever entering the office? The world is in the midst of a digital transformation that stands to impact every aspect of our personal and professional lives. Today, we can direct commands to an empty room knowing that Alexa will add notes to our to-do lists and sync reminders to our smartphones, or collaborate on a project with a co-worker tens of thousands of miles away. Only 20 years ago, these capabilities might have been laughed off as the improbabilities of science fiction – and yet, we all but take them for granted today.
I know digital transformation is a buzzword phrase, but it's true. Even to be able to read this article right now requires access to technology. 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 is overwhelmingly positive: It offers convenience, collaborative power and connectivity. But in allowing us ready communication in the digital world, is the technology we rely on at work eroding our face-to-face collaboration skills? Is our blind reliance on Slack, Skype and smart tech hurting us, even as we applaud it for helping us?
Technology is not always a timesaver.
Technology fosters efficiency – at least, it seems to. Chat platforms and email empower us to start a conversation in a matter of keystrokes, all from the comfort of our desks. We don't have to walk across the office or take a multi-hour train ride to meet a colleague in person.
Given the apparent time savings, it's tempting to interchangeably use email and other messaging platforms in place of in-person communication, but if we do, we must be cognizant of the instances where technology may not be an appropriate communication tool. For example, you may think sending 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 are likely to have follow-up questions, so you'll end up spending more time fielding emails than if you would have just called a companywide meeting in the first place.
To increase productivity and efficiency, a leader must be mindful of how they spend every minute of their day. This is technology's job, to streamline their day-to-day schedules and free up time so they can focus on more pressing issues. Yet, leaders ultimately end up overextending these benefits to save time and use technology to replace crucial aspects of their jobs – e.g., cultivating relationships with their employees. A quarter of employees in the U.S. don't even know the first name of their company's CEO. If this isn't telling of how easy it is to hide behind technology, I don't know what is.
There's more room for misinterpretation.
Emails, texts and chats are all useful, but as such passive communication tools, they can be easily misinterpreted. Some people just 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? Or if someone is short with you, are they brushing you off because they don't like your idea, or just trying to move through tasks quickly? They say that 7% of communication is verbal, while the other 93% is nonverbal; in other words, 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 out on 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 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. It's important to consider the nuances of your writing before you interact with someone online, because abridged interactions can have serious consequences.
I believe that for technology and communication to work harmoniously, we need to honor the values of the past alongside digital transformation – and this is the perfect time for it. For the first time ever, more than five generations now coexist within our multigenerational workforces. Merging traditional ideals with innovation, we continue to enhance our most valuable, innate traits: our language and communication skills.
Dehumanization presents dangers to business.
Yes, technology is a platform that has allowed us to connect with more people around the globe, but what about the people right next to us? Instead of meeting with a friend for coffee, we are quick to pick up our phones and send them a text to ask how they've been. If it's 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 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 problematic. How can we sit behind a computer screen and expect to nurture quality relationships? The truth is we can't – communication is more than just short phrases, abbreviations and emojis.
If communication is stripped away, we also strip away 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 lead colleagues to feel less empathetic to each other and ultimately cultivate a culture of isolation.
As leaders, it's our job to be aware of how technology affects our company culture. Dehumanization leads to disconnection, and your employees and clients will suffer as a result. A job shouldn't just be a source of income, but an opportunity for someone to foster their passion for their work, a place where they can grow and develop their skills and talents alongside other professionals. This can only happen when we see people and employees as humans.
Technology has made our world smaller – but that's not necessarily a negative.
I say this not to belittle the vastness of our world, but to turn the rhetoric surrounding digital transformation on its head. Technology has been stigmatized as being isolating, a force that divides rather than unites. But I don't wholeheartedly agree with this judgment. Our world is smaller because it's more connected than ever before, and one of technology's most revolutionary advantages is its influence on communication.
Communication is a necessary skill in virtually every aspect of our lives: our friendships, our marriages, but especially in our careers. When we use technology both mindfully and purposely, it shouldn't strip away our communication skills – it should make us stronger communicators.