Why leaders should never underestimate the power of face-to-face communication
— February 4th, 2019
"For all of the beauty of technology and all the things we've helped facilitate over the years, nothing yet replaces human interaction," Apple CEO Tim Cook told the Wall Street Journal.
If your role is to help leaders communicate, there is one thing you cannot ignore. The immense importance of face-to-face communication. Seems obvious? It is. But despite this, you may be increasingly asked to create a new employee app, a video or send out an all staff email. These all have their place, but not at the expense of building connections with staff in person.
With the proliferation of digital channels and the rise of remote working, face-to-face communication has become more important than ever. Companies are increasingly recognizing this and the likes of Google, Apple and IBM have started bringing workers back to the office.
Helping leaders be human Countless research studies have shown the value of face-to-face communications. They build relationships, inspire emotion and engender trust. Psychologist Susan Pinker, author of ‘The Village Effect’, even argues that face-to-face contact makes us healthier, happier and smarter.
Despite popular belief, research has also shown that Gen Z's and millennials choose in-person conversations over using technology and prefer corporate offices to telecommuting. They also say that “communication” is the most important quality of a leader.
Dan Schawbel's recent book ‘Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation’ features perspectives of over 2,000 managers and employees across different age groups. He shows that virtual communication, whilst essential and valuable, actually contributes to a stronger sense of isolation at work than ever before.
Helping leaders build personal connections By concentrating on face-to-face techniques, we can help leaders communicate with more empathy and impact - building trust and credibility. It is isn’t just about planning formal events, like town halls and conferences – it’s about making it part of your communications culture. It’s ensuring you’re not over-reliant on communications to employees online and instead you are fostering informal, in-person, two-way communication wherever possible. When leaders say these six things, help them see how effective it is when said face-to-face:
“Thank you” There are so many ways to say thank you – a card, an email, or even a post-it note on someone’s desk. But even better is saying it in person. Public recognition at an awards event or staff meeting work well and can become a regular item on leaders’ agendas. Even more powerful is saying it when staff least expect it - from the canteen to the corridor - saying thank you for their work and making them feel valued and respected.
“I have some tough news to share....” When it comes to challenging topics like restructures or efficiency drives, discussing it face-to-face is crucial. When emotions run high, talking in person is important to show compassion and to avoid misunderstandings. Tone, body language and words can all be misunderstood when not seen in person. One of the signs of an effective and empathetic leader is having the courage to be visible when sharing difficult news.
“This is what it is happening, and this is what it means for you...” A vital role of a leader is to put important organizational news into context for individuals and teams. Being face-to-face enables this, as it allows space for immediate questions, so staff can make sense of what it means for them. It might be in a team meeting or a 121 – being in person with staff allows for dialogue and debate.
“Have you got any questions or feedback?” Giving employees a voice is vital to engagement. Leaders need to proactively ask their employees questions such as “How do you think we could do better?” “What are your ideas on this initiative?” Being face-to-face encourages collaboration and cross-fertilization of ideas, helping staff to feel listened to and have their concerns addressed. It also shows leaders are being open and honest, answering questions as they come in, not honing the answers carefully, and being suspected of ‘spin’.
“What’s on your mind?” Being face-to-face helps cultivate the art of listening to employees. Many organizations have had success with face-to-face ‘listening sessions’ where employees are invited to share their views with managers, not limited to a specific topic. In HSBC, the internal communications team helped open up communications between employees and the senior management team through a programme called ‘Exchange’ (unofficially called the ‘Shut Up and Listen’ programme). It gave employees access to leaders to discuss anything and everything from compensation structures to the staff canteen.
“Let me share a story...” Storytelling face-to-face is one of the most ancient forms of communication, with cultural stories being passed from generation to generation. Storytelling in business helps leaders communicate a vision, communicate who they are, and share knowledge. Good stories, well told, turn staff into ambassadors for your brand. Leaders telling stories in person make them all the more powerful – employees can see the look in their eyes, their body language and hear their tone of voice. This is what inspires feelings and emotions, making them captivating and compelling.
Whilst technology can make us more efficient and productive, it will never replace face-to-face conversations. Leaders who encourage personal connections will have staff that are more committed and engaged - even healthier and happier. So help your leader become more human. Help them forge better connections. It’ll make the workplace a better experience for all of us.