How technology can boost the interpersonal office dynamic

Whether it’s across the country or just across the office, technology is great at connecting co-workers, but it’s no replacement for in-person collaboration.

Too often, the modern workplace encourages distance between co-workers as they try to do collaborative work.

Thanks to the ubiquity of email and workflow tools like Slack, workers can send a note and reach team members at any time. That’s great when teams work remotely, but the downside comes when technology replaces a good, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation with a co-worker who just sits across the room.

“It’s true that online communication and automated processes have largely replaced interpersonal interactions like walking over to someone’s desk or handing in a physical form,” says Amanda Daering, CEO of newance, a NEWaukee-powered talent agency. “While the convenience is nice, we build connections during even the most basic face-to-face interactions. As my business partner, Jeremy Fojut, says, ‘Trust equals time plus shared experiences.’ That’s true even if the experience is seemingly mundane, so those interactions must be somehow replaced.”

Amanda Daering

Replacing those interactions isn’t something companies can afford to ignore. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 50 percent of the workforce now works in some sort of telecommuting role, and 80–90 percent of all employees say they would like to work remotely at least part of the time. Staying connected is more important than ever.

The answer, says Daering, is for companies to take a human-centered approach to incorporating new technology.

“Companies that take a human-centered approach use technology to enable time for connection,” explains Daering. “Rather than status meetings where everyone is physically present but mentally on their phones, these companies create connections through design sprint workshops or creative brainstorming sessions. Instead of manually entering data, they use dashboards of real-time relevant information. In these tech-smart rather than tech-cold companies, people are spending meaningful time with their teammates and customers instead of mundane bureaucracy.”

So, where did the idea of using technology to better facilitate a conversation between co-workers come from? Is it just another “silly” idea brought to us by those “entitled millennials”?

“We believe this shift was less a generational thing than it was an internet thing,” says Daering. “People have access to exponentially more information and choices than they did when millennials were still too young to be in the workforce.

“Millenials and especially Generation Z are the first to enter the corporate world with the expanded options of the digital age, but it’s not exclusive to them,” Daering continues. “While each generation may have trends about what matters most to them, the ability to assess and find opportunities is there across the board.”

Daering offers the following example to illustrate her point. In the past, someone mid-career would have been limited to friends, newspaper ads, or a headhunter for exploring other professional opportunities. Today, people can find and apply for a new job from their phone without even speaking to anyone.”

“To thrive, businesses need to cut through the noise of competition and earn loyalty rather than expect it,” advises Daering. “A human-centered approach is the best way to do that, even if it is much easier said than done.”

When she takes the stage during the upcoming Disrupt Madison 4.0 on Wednesday, June 5, at the Sylvee, Daering will discuss how the evolving digital future holds a tremendous opportunity for talent teams to provide much needed human connection.

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When used appropriately, Daering says digital communication tools like Slack can be very useful for communicating information and creating affinity groups. There are a few basic standards that can help keep these tools in check.

First, the information being communicated needs to be fact based, relatively neutral in tone, and everyone must have the context to understand and act on the information.

“It is more harmful than helpful to make a broad statement about poor company performance over a Slack channel,” notes Daering, “and yes, there are many leaders who have tried this. Even if there is some sort of metric being shared, the entire team does not likely have the right context to process this, and it’s a sensitive topic.”

Instead, says Daering, while in-person is ideal but not always possible, a video conference may at least allow for more time to explain context. Multiple channels should be provided for questions, allowing everyone to find a tool they feel comfortable with. Clarity of message and tone are critical to keep a consistent brand.

Second, conflict should be handled with as much interpersonal connection as possible. That means never over an instant message or email. “Even if it must be a phone call due to constraints, that’s better than anything from a keyboard,” says Daering. “It’s too easy to lose our empathy when we’re looking at text rather hearing a voice and seeing a face.”

Third, do use these technologies to create connections. For example, the team at Continuus Technologies, a Milwaukee technology consulting firm, often solve business intelligence and data challenges for clients in a wide variety of locations, says Daering. “They use channels by technology to allow anyone to ask a technical question to the group at any time. This gives team members a readily available resource group and naturally creates connections between two people who do similar work. Many other companies use channels to do something similar across other shared interests like pets. These channels create easy-to-access online spaces for dialogue. The best channels come organically from the team and are open to everyone.”

But what about those Gen Z workers, just entering the workforce, who are more connected than any generation before but are also the loneliest generation, according to a nationwide survey by health insurer Cigna?

Companies can both utilize Gen Z’s comfort with digital channels and create opportunities for them to connect face to face, says Daering.

“For example, some training and introductory information can be provided in familiar formats such as short videos, while trust can be built in the real world with engaging onboarding events. The more that incoming employees observe the foundational behaviors and cultural norms of the business, the sooner they will pick up those habits. It’s critical that managers be trained and equipped to provide specific and actionable feedback for any team member who struggles to meet expectations.”

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