Since the dawn of the digital age, where emails and social media rule, face to face meetings have taken something of a nose dive.
Those of us who were born before 1981, dubbed ‘digital immigrants’ remember a time when there was no Google or mobiles and you had to pick up the phone or arrange to meet someone in person. It’s probably fair to say that digital natives (loosely categorised as those born after 1981), on the other hand, are more au fait with texting than talking and virtual meetings rather than physical ones.
Speaking at the CIPD conference in November last year, author and millennial Dan Schwabel, said we were in the midst of a “loneliness epidemic” and that remote working, which was often seen as a major benefit, could potentially leave people feeling isolated.
The Back to Human author said: “Great ideas come from socialising and how people behave is usually different to what they actually want and need. Sending a text or email is easier than speaking to people face to face but social integration is essential to our wellbeing and individual needs.”
But can virtual meetings or webinars help bridge the gap in the absence of face to face meetings?
In a word, no, says Jonathan Taylor, senior psychologist at Pearn Kandola business psychology firm. “When I’m coaching someone and there is distance involved, I always insist on doing it through video conference, such as Skype for Business, because it’s so important for us to see each other’s body language and show that you are taking a genuine interest in what people are saying.”
Words matter but not as much as the way we say them, according to Taylor. “There were some famous experiments by psychologist Albert Mehrabian in the 60s and 70s, where he looked at the impact of our communication,” he explains. “His conclusions were that our words do not carry as much impact as we think and that much of the influence of our communication comes from our body language and tone.”
Mehrabian found, for example, that 55% of the impact of our communication came from body language, 38% from the tone of voice, and just 7% from the words themselves.
Face to face interaction is really important when it comes to building trust and rapport with someone and it takes significantly longer to build a relationship when you’re doing it primarily online and have to guess the meaning behind the words, says Taylor.
“In a typical 10 minute conversation, studies show we can give away up to 150 micro-behaviours, which can be positive or negative. When we’re building trust with someone, the ‘micro-affirmations’ that we give away are really important – eye contact, open body language, building on what we hear. Our body language reinforces our words and our intent,” he notes.
Creating a more inclusive environment
One to one meetings and communication is also important when it comes to diversity and inclusion, says Taylor. “Micro-affirmations are a very important part of inclusive leadership – reinforcing your intent to include everyone in discussions. It’s very difficult to demonstrate inclusive leadership in the absence of face to face (or virtual face to face) non-verbal cues.”
Sara Hope, founder of The Conversation Space coaching consultancy, says we should place as much emphasis on conversational skills as we do on data analytics, technology and AI. “Conversation happens at every moment, in every company yet it is often one of the most under-rated and under-developed skills, even though it carries the greatest potential to impact organisational culture, performance, brand and engagement – both positively and negatively,” she notes.
Making yourself vulnerable
We often underestimate the importance of good communication and conversation, says Hope, and the skills it takes to grow trust, build empathy and influence others. “The way we talk to each other, person to person; to our clients and customers and to the other people that we work with in our organisations, sets the tone and cultural norms at a foundational level.”
Business leaders need to try and have more face to face conversations and to speak more candidly and openly, Hope believes. “Leaders need to have more courageous conversations, to show up in person and to show a high degree of humility and willingness to be vulnerable,” she says.
So next time you’re thinking of sending that email, it might be worth picking up the phone and trying to do it over coffee or lunch instead.
Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.