Technology has made giant strides in enabling people to connect virtually, remotely, and in real time, and to a degree almost eliminating the need to connect in real life (IRL). But in the rush to embrace ‘virtuality’, are we forgetting the value of face-to-face communication?
Certainly for businesses, cost has been the driving force behind their transition to virtual communications. Firms can save small fortunes on travel expenses by not travelling long distance or overseas to meetings and conferences, while the time saved can be invested in increasing productivity.
Jason Downes, managing director of conference call service provider Powwownow, believes that virtual meetings have a huge role to play for businesses in the modern age.
"They allow flexibility in structure and can save businesses and employees huge amounts of time and money through cutting down on travel. Video conferencing tools such as iMeet allow high-quality interactions and it means that for SMEs who are keen to collaborate, the postcode of a potential agency or partner is no longer a barrier to working with them," he explains.
But, by reducing face-to face connectivity, are businesses missing a trick in terms of employee engagement and motivation; the human side of work? Not as long as staff have access to live video tools in the workplace, says James Campanini, general manager EMEA at video communications company BlueJeans.
"The drawbacks of having no physical connection in business can effectively be eliminated with the implementation of live video tools," he says. "Such collaboration tools help workers keep in touch and remain involved with the business, as if they are sat in the same building. Using this technology, an employee is able to engage from anywhere around the globe, whether attending a meeting in Australia or a few streets away from home."
In BlueJeans’ recent Love Live report, 72 per cent of employees saw live video as playing a useful role in the next two years. More than a third (36 per cent) want to see live video used more over other methods such email (27 per cent) and phone calls (24 per cent) as they believed it would strengthen relationships.
We are constantly being reminded that technology to support remote working has huge appeal to highly sought-after millennial talent. A study from Odesk found that 92 per cent of millennials want to work from home, so employers looking to attract and retain their share of that talent will offer technology that facilitates remote working as an incentive.
However, if a new study by business communications provider Fuze is to be believed, the future of workplace communication may not be virtual after all. The survey of 2,500 15-to-18 year olds, dubbed the App Generation, found that 69 per cent believe it’s important to meet people face to face if you work with them, while 67 per cent confirmed they want to work with other people as part of a team. Employers will need to adapt to the needs of this next generation of employees if they want to secure their share of the talent.
Fuze’s head of office experiences Sharon Francis says: "The App Generation wants flexibility in how and when they work, but they also place significant importance on face-to-face interaction. Office spaces need to become inspiring environments that promote a sense of community and adapt to the many ways employees want to work, whether they are emailing, taking calls, brainstorming or collaborating on a project."
Powwownow’s Jason Downes concedes that there are times when face-to-face meetings do need to happen, but these moments must be chosen carefully.
He says: "If you are simply having an initial meeting with someone to establish if you have similar goals etc., then a meeting in person at that stage isn’t needed, however, if you are sealing a deal then doing so in person could be beneficial. I think in the UK, we can be guilty of having meetings for meetings sakes; going over key issues or solving problems via virtual meetings can help everyone reach a conclusion far quicker."
Businesses also need to think about their customer relationships. In their rush to exploit the booming online consumer market they may be underestimating the power of personal connections.
Ali Steed, founder of The Business Powerhouse, sees the rise in online retailing over the last decade as testament to how comfortable people feel dealing with transactions through the internet rather than having to see someone face-to-face.
She says: "There are still some businesses that need a physical presence, for example, most people would not buy a car without driving it first, or a house without viewing it, but even in these cases, technology is still helping to get customers through the door in the first place."
But another piece of new research, from UCL School of Management, suggests that visual transparency between customers and providers improves service and performance, and creates value for both - in other words, the mere sight of a customer motivates people to do their job better.
"In many industries, effort is hidden from customers, but feelings about an office job that’s separate from the customer, for example, could change if suddenly the beneficiary of that work is visible," say the researchers.
"It’s being appreciated that makes people feel that their work is meaningful and what they do matters."
The research suggests that seeing customers makes employees feel more appreciated, more satisfied with their jobs, and more willing to exert effort. At the same time, seeing the workers allowed customers to perceive greater effort, and they became more appreciative of the employees and valued the service more.
While effective teamwork and customer relations via digital communication have never been easier to achieve, physical presence remains a huge part of the relationships between business colleagues and customers, and companies that support both virtual and IRL opportunities for people to connect are likely to reap the business benefits.