Emails and texts galore - but are you feeling increasingly isolated at work?

Have you lost the human connection?

In the quest for better work-life balance you now work predominantly from home. You love the flexibility and the autonomy of your new working arrangements, but something is missing?

Maybe you work in a virtual team where all your colleagues are scattered around the country or even around the globe and most of your communication is via email.

You may work in an office environment, but your job consists primarily of email or internet-based communication and you are feeling alone in a crowd. Everyone is too busy to stop and chat and the simplest requests are sent via email.

Are you communicating mainly via text, because you just don’t have the time or the inclination for a full conversation?

Do you feel you are losing the human connection?

 

My recent experiences have reminded me of an article by psychologist Edward M Hallowell - The Human Moment at Work - published in the Harvard Business Review January 1999*

He wrote about the disappearing ‘Human Moment’ over a decade ago and how letting the human moment disappear from the organisation leads to greater dysfunction, over-sensitivity, self-doubt and abrasiveness. Employees become disconnected, dissatisfied and eventually leave. Those that stay remain unhappy. An organisation’s culture turns unfriendly and unforgiving, which is detrimental to the employee’s well-being as well as the organisation’s productivity and success. Human contact is critical – preferably face-to-face – either in physical presence or via Skype. It is important to be able to hear the tone of the person’s voice, see their face and gauge non-verbal cues. These are all things that cannot be conveyed in an email. Our reliance on email and text messaging has continued to increase over the years and the effects are taking their toll on employees as well as organisations.

 

There have been an ever-increasing number of people working from home in the last decade. This move from a centralised office to the home has obviously been facilitated by the rapid proliferation of technology in our lives. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t feel we have a problem with technology or even the home office – I work from home and I have certainly embraced technology – you should see my office!!! However, I do feel that it has become all too easy to replace human connection and human conversation with technology. The ability to connect with many people at once in different time zones has made technology very appealing. Social media has transcended the realms of our personal/social lives – businesses and corporations have fully embraced social media as a commercial opportunity as well as a communication tool with the organisation.

 

As enticing as this technology has become, we still need a human connection. We are human emotional beings with a basic, instinctual need for connection, belonging and the exchange of emotion – verbal and non-verbal. The exchange of ideas and feelings takes place in real time with attention, emotional and physical presence. This doesn’t happen in an email, which is consecutive and in a linear fashion.

 

The need for face-to-face contact

I have recently been part of a club that relies almost completely on online communication and emails. I joined this club because the flexibility of meeting online was appealing, considering my busy schedule. However, over time I didn’t engage as much as I had hoped for and in fact I really didn’t get to know the other members in the club. The members that I did connect with were either part of my committee or I had met at various club functions. The members that I hadn’t met, I really didn’t connect with at all.

 

Beware of the self-righteous email

All organisations consist of a myriad of personality and management styles. Some people are more collaborative than others, while some tend to live by the philosophy “my way or the highway”.  These differences in communication styles become even more apparent when there is a strong reliance on emails. With the click of the ‘reply all’ button and an impersonal message the damage is done. We lose compassion, understanding and empathy when we interact with a keyboard and a screen. I have been as guilty as the next person in sending out the politically correct or self-righteous email when a little compassion was needed. How often do we really put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and consider how they are going to receive the message? Yes, we have all been in meetings where the conversation deteriorated to the point of being destructive, but it is easier to use some emotional intelligence and pull back when you are in a real-time conversation with all the emotional cues and social norms.

 

Overuse of email is counter-productive

I have also seen the detrimental effects of a micromanager become even more stressful and overbearing by the overuse of email communication – even though the manager sits 2 doors away. Overuse of email communication creates a chasm between people as they lose the human connection. The barrage of emails becomes more and more directive leaving the employee wondering how they will ever please their manager and insecure about their job. It is easy to say in an email ‘I don’t like it – rewrite’ without any further opportunity to discuss. Cryptic emails or long rants are of no benefit to the receiver or the sender. In a face-to-face meeting there is the opportunity to have a conversation where both the manager and employee can express their views and reach an agreement.

 

The detrimental effects of unanswered emails

The lack of communication, whether in person or electronically, also decreases the quality of the relationship over time. There are times when one or both parties are very busy – snowed under by their own workload – resulting in emails not replied or phone calls not returned. As the disconnection creeps in there is more space for ‘have I done something wrong?’, ‘do I matter in this organisation?’ or even ‘no one cares what I do’. Emotions run wild – often starting with confusion and progressing to resentment, anger and complete disconnection.

 

What you can do

If you feel that you have lost the human touch or that you are on the receiving end of a communication drought – take action – arrange to meet the person and address your needs for more personal and meaningful communication. This may take careful planning, but if you want to restore effective communication you may need to get creative. It may not always work, but I have found that going out for a cuppa or lunch does give you the opportunity for uninterrupted time and away from the busy desk.

 

Meet with the person – and make the most of it and be honest about how you feel. Have suggestions for discussion on how you both can communicate going forward. Be honest with the issue and creative with possible solutions.

 

Be present – the human connection needs your attention for clarity in what you say as well as effective listening. You need physical and emotional presence for a good connection. Continuously checking your phone for messages is not conducive to good communication!

 

Make time – it is easier to shoot off an email or send a text and sometimes it suffices. But connection requires an exchange of ideas, feelings and opinions in real time – and for this you need to make time! You may need to re-prioritise your day or specifically schedule meetings.

 

Human contact in organisations

Human contact is time consuming and it does come at a price. But the trust, rapport, connection and empathy that are built are worth it – both for the employees and for business.

It may be time to re-look at your work practices – Are your employees feeling isolated? Is there constant friction within the organisation? Has empathy left your organisation? There may be abundant communication, but of the wrong kind.

 

All these symptoms point to a greater need for human connection. It need not be complex or costly. I have seen the simplest of things make the greatest of difference – such as a monthly group lunch of pizza or sushi. Often people in the field miss out on group activities and this is where technology can help. Even if they have to BYO meal they are part of the conversation, part of the jokes and part of the fun.

 

 

Technology is great, but we don’t have to be a slave to it and we certainly don’t have to lose touch with those around us and our colleagues.

Do you feel that you have become isolated or you are taking the brunt of impersonal and abrasive emails? Please contact me and share your story, I would love to know how you are dealing with these issues. I’m also available if you would like some help in creating more connection in your workplace  –  paula@awaremind.com.au

 

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*The Human Moment at Work by Edward M Hallowell

Copyright 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Published Harvard Business Review January 1999