The Importance of Face-to-Face Communication at Work

By Chuck Martin

As more communication up and down the line at work is done electronically, face-to-face discussion can easily fall by the wayside. While the speed and volume of communication increases with e-mail, voicemail and instant messaging, some of the dialogue and personal touch can start to disappear.

A global survey shows that 67 percent of senior executives and managers say their organization would be more productive if their superiors communicated more often by personal discussion. While they desire more personal discussion from their superiors, however, the top personal method of communicating for these same business leaders is e-mail, based on the survey by NFI Research.

“Too many people take the easy way out and try and do everything via e-mail and in a lot of cases consume more time on both sides of the equation than they would have by simply picking up the phone or going to see the person,” said one survey respondent. “I often find that when I look the other person in the eyes and ask them something I get far more than I ever would over e-mail.”

“Personal discussion is the foundation of communications,” said another respondent. “Once this foundation is established, it enables all of the other forms of communication. Having a personal connection builds trust and minimizes misinterpretation and misunderstanding.”

When Technology Does the Communicating

While the majority of business leaders say their organization would be more productive with more personal discussion, some lament that many people fall back on technology to do the communicating. “We have started to run our business by using technology instead of good old-fashioned personal communication,” said one manager. “We need to take vacations from our BlackBerrys, computers and voicemail and get out and talk to everyone in the organization. Nothing can replace open and honest face-to-face communication.”

Using e-mail rather than personal discussion can also delay decision-making. “I find that many executives avoid conversation because they may be forced to make a decision or express an opinion,” said one respondent. “If they can keep communications within e-mail, they can continually pass the buck around or back without having to commit. Management by failure to act may be the new favored process.”

In other cases, communicating via technology can be effective. “Instant messages and e-mail are communication accelerators,” said one executive. “Discussion databases are more efficient for larger groups. But there is no substitute for in-person communication when appropriate.”

“Our organization uses DVDs as a medium to distribute corporate messages to significant segments of the workforce and it is effective,” said another.

Consider Context and Purpose

The key is to use the correct communication method at the right time. “When give-and-take is required, there is no form of communication that works better than getting out of one’s chair and speaking to the person face to face,” said one survey respondent. “If personal discussion is not an option, the telephone or Web conferencing is an acceptable second choice. If you aren’t concerned about the response, then e-mail, text message and memos work fine for pronouncements from on high.”

“We’re beginning to learn that different methods of communication are more effective at certain tasks than others,” said another respondent. “E-mail is great for scheduling and confirming meetings, phone is good for quick conversations that require two-way communications and a memo is preferred for long background pieces. In-person and scheduled meetings are always the best for any discussion requiring true dialogue and consensus.”

With so much to do at work, it’s not always easy to find time for personal discussion. However, in the long term, face-to-face communication just might assure that communication is clear and understood.

Chuck Martin is a best-selling business book author whose latest book, SMARTS (Are We Hardwired for Success?) (AMACOM/American Management Association), was just published. He lectures around the world and can be reached at chuck@nfiresearch.com.

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