Communication: Everyone is connected, but are we really connecting?

02 Jun 2016

In this ever increasing digital world we are more connected than ever before. People have more ‘friends’ on Facebook than they can ever possibly converse with if they were ‘REAL’ friends. Professionals have hundreds of connections on Linked in trying to gain advantage in their business. We have the convenience of automation where we can press buttons instead of having to speak to people. But what impact is this having on how we communicate and the effectiveness of getting things done to the best of our ability?
Working with individuals and organisations across the breadth and depth of all sectors, industries and cultures we are privileged to gain real in sight in to the impact behaviour is having on the effective performance and results. Here are some of the real examples we have learned about in recent times….. 
An individual was sending emails whilst in one of our Management Academy workshops. There to learn how to be a better manager this individual claimed they were engaged in the session, yet when challenged was unaware of the content, or the exercises and discussion they were asked to perform. There was a strong belief that if the emails from clients were not responded to immediately this would have a detrimental impact on the business. This individual did not work in the medical industry, or the emergency services so the belief was mis-aligned to the desired results.
Whilst in a workshop learning how to be more personally effective a young individual was asked to put their phone away as it was causing a distraction to the other workshop participants. Upon the third time of asking the trainer jokingly threatened to confiscate the phone. The individual erupted in a fit of irrational behaviour. When the situation calmed down the individual admitted that they slept with their phone on their pillow every night so they wouldn’t miss anything and would still be in contact with friends. Concentration was a problem for this individual in the workplace and productivity wasn’t much better either. Do we see the connection here?
When we suggest to Leaders and Managers that they could exercise a ‘Closed Door’ policy as well as their traditional ‘Open Door’ policy this is often met with resistance and disbelief due to the learned behaviour of always being available ‘just in case they need me’. 
Here’s the honest truth in the matter….
If you are always available you’ll always have to be available as your audience (internal and external customers) will expect you to be there as and when they want you. The world will not end if you don’t answer an email in the next 30mins. If it was urgent the sender would call you. It seems that in this modern world we work in almost everything is urgent! If this were true, what becomes more urgent and do we need another category for the ultra-urgent things? 
We all need protected time, time to focus on what we need to give our undivided attention to. No distractions just pure, full on attention to get accurate work done. We may also need to take a break in that protected time to ensure we gain a balanced view and we can recharge ourselves occasionally. Agile working and choice of working hours has brought significant benefits to how we work and live, but this is often plagued with the guilt of having to be working at home, or at least seen to be working in case we are thought of as skiving. 
In Germany and other European countries there is a move to make it illegal to send work related emails after a certain time in the evening. Not an employment law, but a national law. Whilst this seems at first as a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it might be the answer to stop the insanity before more people are adversely affected by the growing trends in workplace expectations.
Another alarming concern is that more people are using email as their default method of communicating with others. Even if they are sat behind them, they will email rather than turn around and speak with them. I understand the need for an audit trail, but how about a face to face, whites of the eyes conversation first followed up by a reference email? It’s surprising how much time this saves as opposed to the back and forth of emails that can easily be mis-interpreted, resulting in errors, duplication and dis-satisfaction.       
One example of a bold break for sanity is an Italian company that told staff to refrain from sending any internal emails for a week in an effort to reduce stress levels.
Home textiles company Gabel, based in the northern Como region, commissioned an expert to interview its employees about what their main concerns were at work. Many said that managing the huge volume of internal correspondence was a burden during the working day. That prompted the company's management to propose a solution, which - somewhat ironically - was sent to all staff in an email.
"Together we will begin the following experiment, which will take us back in time to when people talked more," managing director Emilio Colombo wrote, declaring an "email free" week. "We invite you not to use email for internal communications (between colleagues at the same location), in favour of a more direct and immediate contact."
The company's president, Michele Moltrasio, told the BBC it hadn't been easy to stop such an "ingrained" practice, even temporarily, but that employees had welcomed the challenge. "They are rediscovering the pleasure of meeting and talking rather than writing," he says. And that includes Mr Moltrasio, who is avoiding emails along with everyone else. "Even if from next week we all go back to using email, these days of experimentation are very worthwhile, to understand and rethink the methods and pace of working," he says.
Several recent studies have found that a high volume of emails raises stress levels at work. In 2013, researchers said that a full inbox led to peaks in people's blood pressure and heart rate. And last year, a study at the University of British Columbia found that limiting email use during the day lowered people's stress levels "significantly".

Another company went as far as to ban the use of emails between certain hours of the operational day. If a client emailed in to anyone in the company, an automated response would be sent stating that their email would be read after (let’s say 2pm) on that day and if an urgent response was required please call the direct line number. It was amazing how many clients re-evaluated their perception of ‘Urgent’. Communication and account management improved in this challenge to the norm.

So in summary I ask you to consider the way you are communicating in your workplace with your internal and external customers and map this to your desired outcomes (targets). Are there improvements you could make to gain a better outcome? Email, social media and other forms are not the problem, they are, of course a useful addition to how we operate. The problem lies with user behaviour. Does your behaviour help you achieve what you want?