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Could digital communication supersede face-to-face meetings?

While new technologies make communication quicker and easier, they could also be holding teams back

One major benefit of digital channels is that they allow employees to do a greater share of their work from outside the office, enabling them to be more flexible about when they work. Remote and flexible working have skyrocketed in the last few years, with 63% of full-time employees now working flexibly in some way according to a report by Timewise and EY.

Yet despite the many benefits that modern technology brings to businesses, recent research by business intelligence firm ORC International highlighted the potential risk of rushing headlong into an entirely virtual working environment. It could remove the interpersonal contact that is so important to building an effective team, and staff feel that there is still nothing like face-to-face contact to encourage collaboration and innovation.

Face-to-face meetings are not always the best option for every workplace interaction. Every channel serves its own purpose. You may use an instant messenger or email to ask a colleague a quick question, or Web conferencing to hold an internal catch-up with colleagues abroad.

However, when it comes to collaboration and innovation there’s a reason face-to-face contact is still highly valued by employees.

The age-old rule is that communication is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal, comprising 55% body language and 38% tone of voice. No wonder that face-to-face communication helps create a rapport that can’t be felt over email or phone, and engenders camaraderie and trust in the relationship. Can you recall walking away from a digital interaction with the same buzz of satisfaction you get from a really energised, productive meeting?

People need to be able to bounce ideas off each other, get to know one another personally, and forge positive emotional connections by reading face and body language if they’re going to function most effectively as a team and come up with ideas that are truly innovative. There’s a reason creative teams don’t hold brainstorms over the phone.

Does technology have the potential to supersede face-to-face communication?

Technology is only going to get smarter, and there’s every chance that we might one day see all of the positive benefits of face-to-face interaction achieved through digital channels. It isn’t too far-fetched to believe that virtual reality technology could ultimately allow us to recreate the environment of a busy office, and preserve all the benefits of daily face-to-face contact without anybody needing to leave their homes.

Clearly this will not happen overnight. And right now the challenge for organisations is to find a way to maximise the benefits of online communication tools while preserving the important element of personal interaction – which is especially integral to fostering creativity.

How can businesses strike the balance?

It would be remiss of organisations to not make the most of new communication tools, especially as prospective employees will expect workplaces to have the latest technology and channels. However, it’s clear that we need to preserve a balance. The latest tech might make your organisation look cool, but is it going to help your staff foster strong working relationships? Will it create an environment where creativity and collaboration can flourish?

Businesses in the tech and creative sector need to focus more of their resources towards turning their offices into places that inspire teamwork and creativity. From breakout zones to gaming areas, places where staff can meet, chat and stimulate their creative thinking. This not only gives staff a place to have a break but allows them to build positive relationships with their peers, which has a significant impact on staff productivity.

Another way to boost innovative thinking would be to offer classes that equip staff with creative skills, such as painting or drawing, languages or crafts, which would encourage more face-to-face interaction as well as motivating and inspiring employees.

Technology will undoubtedly change the face of workplace interaction as it gets more advanced. But VR headsets and robots aren’t going to take over quite yet. Face-to-face contact is still critically important in this new digital world, and workplaces should make sure their offices encourage interpersonal as well as virtual working if they want to reach their creative potential.

Simon Peck is group managing director of Engine UK