NEWS / INSIGHT

Why talking matters

In an increasingly digitised business world

Imagine the scenario. A busy office. You need to tell something to a colleague a few desks away. After typing up a letter, you leave it in their tray and await their response.

It sounds like madness, yet day-in, day-out, workers are guilty of emailing colleagues rather than communicating in the time-honoured fashion of a face-to-face chat. While it’s easy to assume email is more efficient this isn’t necessarily the case, according to Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School. In fact, the loss of the synergy that occurs when people get together for a “chinwag” is having a negative impact on workplace output and creativity.

Professor Cooper says, “Whether you’re in the reception area of a GP’s surgery, ordering at McDonald’s or working in an office, interaction is increasingly moving to screens. We type on them, watch content on them and have allowed them to replace human beings for several functions. This is a shame because people talking to each other, taking stock of things and perhaps even coming up with new ideas can’t happen on a computer. The business world needs staff to be communicating and bouncing off each other, not sending emails to the person at the next desk. Otherwise something very special is being lost.”

“Video conferencing is a quantum leap if you think about where we were 20 years ago,” says Dr Robinson. “It is synchronous, so at least the user doesn’t have to wait for the other person to get back as they would with an email.”

 
 

The architecture of collaboration

Dan Hubert won the People’s Choice Award in #VOOM 2015 for his parking website AppyParking. In the beginning, Dan sought advice all over the place: “I didn’t know anything so I basically bombarded anyone who was business oriented. I just kept on asking questions – to as many people as I possibly could, until I’d collected enough pieces of the jigsaw to make my own picture.”

Then, when Dan was accepted onto a three-month accelerator programme, he had access to three mentors, who helped him focus on the right bits of the business at the right times. He says: “It was like having an agony aunt.  I was steered in the right direction and focused on what I needed to be doing. It was really useful.”

Where to start?

The benefit of face-to-face and voice-to-voice collaboration is already recognised by some of the most successful enterprises and organisations on the planet. This month, the new 175-acre Apple Park campus opens in Cupertino, California. Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing, has spoken of how the building’s design is “all about fostering collaboration”. The architects have incorporated dozens of comfortable, communal spaces, where staff can catch up – and potentially spark an idea for the next big Apple product. There is also a huge garden in the middle for meetings outdoors.

Closer to home, collaboration-enhancing design is catching on. For example, the BBC's Broadcasting House in central London has large diner-style booths where staff can have impromptu meetings. Of course technology needs to support collaboration too. The Arora Hotel group installed next-generation communications infrastructure at its flagship Sofitel London Heathrow, enabling flawless video conferencing, phone calls and emailing. In addition, all eight Arora Hotels are connected with Virgin Media Business IPVPN, meaning staff can keep in touch with each other, no matter their location. Professor Cary believes no-fuss workforce collaboration is extremely important.

“According to the World Economic Forum, the UK is 10th in the world in terms of use of information communication technologies,” he says. “We are the only large country in the top ten and indeed one of the most digitised in the developed world. Yet productivity per capita here is seventh in the G7 and 17th in the G20. Something about this is very wrong and I think email is the main culprit as it hampers productivity. People generally work better and more creatively when they are in contact with each other, so workplaces need to facilitate this.”

More than words

Dr Mark Robinson from Leeds University Business School agrees. As an organisational psychologist specialising in human behaviour and thought processes, he is acutely aware of the need for efficient, impactful communication in the workplace.

Dr Robinson says, “In a face-to-face conversation, it isn’t just a case of what you say, but how you say it. Sixty per cent of meaning is non-verbal, followed by 20% tone of voice and 20% words. This means that although words carry meaning, how they are delivered carries far more. It’s all about body language, tone of voice, gesticulation and speed. Most of this is lost in digital exchanges.”

To the rescue

Increasingly dispersed staff are a feature of the modern workforce, and remote workers need relevant tech to support them in doing their jobs. Far from hindering productivity and relationships, the right technology has a positive impact. Take video conferencing, for example.

“Video conferencing is a quantum leap if you think about where we were 20 years ago,” says Dr Robinson. “It is synchronous, so at least the user doesn’t have to wait for the other person to get back as they would with an email.”

Sooner rather than later

Already there are products on the market delivering better productivity, staff collaboration (and retention) and voice-to-voice contact. From VoIP services and Unified Communications to telepresence, IM, email and Artificial Intelligence, the savviest enterprises blend a range of capabilities across a digital platform to suit their needs. As for what is coming next? Dr Robinson is willing to hazard a guess.

“Perhaps it would be some kind of virtual reality, where users are placed in a virtual room but see each other as they would in real life. We have come so far already, so who knows where things will lead?” With the relentless pace of change in the digitised business world, communication applications and services are ripe for disruption – and we are sure it will happen sooner rather than later.

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