ALC English Journal Article May 2013

Effective Communication

QUESTION: “My subordinates always communicate via email. How can I get them to use more face-to-face meetings with me and other people?”

ANSWER: This problem is epidemic in the business world! Many people would rather stare at a computer screen than walk a few steps and look into the eyes of a colleague during a conversation. When people ask me what the “E” in email stands for I usually say “Evil”. Some people say it stands for “Easy” or “Efficient”, but being efficient isn’t the same as being effective. Nuances of meaning in facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and context, are entirely missing from email.

Here are some common reasons why people rely so heavily on email even when they are located in the same building, and ways to deal with each one.

People’s Preferences. Some folks may be shy about starting a conversation, especially with their boss. Others may hesitate to interrupt someone who looks busy. It can also take a bit of courage to request time on that person’s cluttered calendar. Email can seem like an appealing way to escape all of these awkward situations.

Help coworkers get to know each other personally. Create opportunities that enable your team to socialize with colleagues face-to-face. Building informal relationships at work lowers some of the barriers to communication.

Company Culture. People tend to follow the established habits of their workplace. If you, the executives, and other managers, favor verbal interactions, then other employees are more likely to use verbal communication as well.

Make a daily habit of walking around the office engaging people in conversation. Hold one-on-one meetings in person. (If the weather’s nice, doing these meetings as a “walk and talk” in a nearby park can be an enjoyable alternative to sitting awkwardly across a table from each other.) Ask your executives to periodically hold interactive all employee meetings. Make sure that your team meetings are in-person, regularly scheduled, and effective. These behaviors will demonstrate that face-to-face communication is both valued and valuable.

The Work Environment. Sometimes the workplace itself discourages effective communication. Many buildings have insufficient meeting rooms, or a shared space for offices with no privacy. As a result conversations can be overheard by all, and potentially disturb anyone sitting nearby.

If you want people to talk with each other, instead of tapping out their messages on a keyboard, you must provide a suitable place for them to meet. Subdivide larger conference rooms into smaller private spaces. Convert private offices into meeting rooms. Discussions can also be held in nearby parks, cafes and restaurants, as long as you manage the risk of leaking top-secret information to your competitors.

Modern Meeting Tools. There are ways to communicate face-to-face even if people work on opposite sides of the earth. Skype videophone calls are free! And there are more sophisticated video-conferencing systems for those whose IT departments worry about security vulnerabilities associated with such applications. Meeting room and calendar scheduling tools that make it easy to find available space and times convenient to all attendees can also encourage talking instead of typing.

Naturally email can be extremely useful when used properly, but it’s only one of many tools in our 21st century communication toolbox. Face-to-face beats email! Even when working in global teams I’ve found that the best communication tool is still the airplane.

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