Put Down The Smartphone: 6 Ways To Be More Human At Work

Stop typing that email and don't text another character. It's time we all made an effort to connect with our fellow humans face to face.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
September 11, 2013

Awash in technology, more and more people are substituting face-to-face communication with electronic missiles. Why bother getting up to walk over to someone’s office or cubicle when sending an email is faster and easier? When an issue is sensitive, why risk draining your energy having to deal with the person’s emotions? It’s much safer and more expedient to handle the situation digitally.

This type of thinking carries a heavy price tag. Eschewing face-to-face communication in the workplace is an insidious habit that promotes efficiency at the expense of the human connection. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell warns that we're in danger of losing what he calls "the human moment" at work. He defines the human moment as an authentic encounter with another person. The human moment can only happen when two people share the same physical space. But it's not only physical presence—a true human moment requires that we pay attention to the person in front us. It doesn't have to be draining or personally revealing. It can be as short as a 5-minute conversation where you set aside your iPhone, disengage from your laptop and focus on the person you're with.

Some business owners may find themselves working solo for long stretches of their day, without a lot of face-to-face contact with others. A global survey of senior executives and managers reports that 67 percent of respondents say their organization would be more productive if their superiors communicated face-to-face more often. Paradoxically, while they want more personal discussion from their superiors, the communication method they use most frequently is email. Of course, sending a quick email is fast and efficient, but clearly, we need to balance the way we communicate to ensure that we don't rely too heavily on electronic communication while eroding our opportunities to genuinely connect with each other. High tech requires a human touch.

Our brain is a social organ—we are wired to connect with others. Research shows that the lack of human moments results in an increase in anxiety, self-doubt, oversensitivity and ambiguity, to name a few. Positive human contact, on the other hand, has been proven to increase trust, reduce stress and stimulate dopamine (which enhances attention and pleasure) and serotonin (which reduces fear and worry). 

What can you do to replenish human moments in your work life? Here are some suggestions:

1. Analyze your communication patterns.

Reflect on your communication style in the past six months. Roughly how much of your communication is done by email? Did the energy expended in these communications make you feel closer to those on the receiving end? How does this compare with the face-to-face communications you've had?

In Texture: Human Expression In The Age Of Communications Overload, Harper compares the way we communicate to creating a weave of connection with others. This weave is made up of threads from emails, instant messaging or Facebook postings. Each of these types of threads have different textures. Some are taut, thick and strong; others are loose, weak and easily broken. A Facebook posting, for example, is a silk-like piece of connection that is ephemeral and can break with the wind. A handwritten note, on the other hand, has weight and permanence. Think about your communication choices in that light and how you can, periodically, create more texture in your communications in order to weave stronger bonds with others.

2. Conduct a relationship audit.

Are there any relationships at work that need a tune up? Perhaps it's someone in another part of the building that you exchange work emails with but rarely communicate face-to-face beyond the perfunctory salutation in the elevator. Don't wait for the Christmas party to approach this person to make a superficial connection. Human connections are not seasonal.

3. Stop the email ping-pong.

How many of us have been caught in the relentless cycle of back and forth emails to explain an issue, or attempt to clear up a misunderstanding with long emails of who said what? Often, this gets out of control and ends up creating more confusion and ill will. A simple remedy to this is to stop the email grenades and to call a face-to-face meeting.

And what about sending emails that have emotional repercussions? When we copy third parties, without much forethought, the emails land as unguided missiles in the recipients' mailboxes. Before reaching for the keyboard, reach for the phone and ask to meet with the person. Better still, invite him or her for coffee or lunch. Watch what happens.

4. Communicate criticism and praise differently.

Words of praise are always welcome, whether they're delivered in person or by email. One could argue that expressing praise by email is even preferred by the recipient. Who among us has not treasured rereading an email that compliments us, or keeping a memento of a complimentary note we received? Criticism, however, is different. Do it in person so you can accomplish what you need to in order to improve a person's performance without unintentionally leaving behind a sting that hurts the long-term relationship. If you're managing a remote workforce, deliver the feedback by phone. Next to our facial expressions, our voice is the most powerful communication technology.

5. Improve your decision-making.

"There's no idea that you have inside your head," Chris Brogan says, "that wouldn't be better served by a 10-minute chat with someone smarter than you." This applies to everyone—whether you're a business owner, solo entrepreneur or manager.

There is scientific proof that flourishing is not a solo endeavor. "It's scientifically correct to say that nobody reaches his or her full potential in isolation," says Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Fredrickson's advice is to connect with others every day, no matter what. This means intentionally clearing up some space in your life so you can strategically create some human moments. Not only will this improve your decision-making process, but it can also heighten your creativity. Take an inspiration from IDEO, the most successful design company in the world: It strongly believes that the group ultimately can come up with the best decision. Its approach to innovation is summed with this statement: "Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius."

Isolation hinders the performance not only of solo entrepreneurs, but of CEOs of large organizations as well. According to The CEO Snapshot Survey conducted by RHR International, 50 percent of all CEOs report experiencing loneliness in the role, and of this group, 61 percent believe that the isolation hinders their performance. First-time CEOs are particularly susceptible to this isolation, with nearly 70 percent of those who experience loneliness saying it negatively affects their ability to do their jobs. Nearly half of all CEOs estimate that most other leaders experience similar feelings of loneliness. It's clear that establishing a human connection with trusted peers and confidants, or seeking the advice of coaches or consultants, is a smart move.

6. Improve your virtual communications.

While connecting face-to-face is imperative for a host of reasons, this is sometimes not possible with a virtual workforce. There are many ways to maintain a human touch in these relationships. One of them is migrating to highly visual and auditory apps such as Webex, GoToMeeting, Adobe Breeze Meeting or OmniJoin. And don't forget Google + Hangouts. For a quick meeting, you can also download the free Meeting Burner. These tools allow you to communicate electronically similarly to how you communicate in person. Often, some of these tools are used by companies only for important meetings. Consider using them more frequently. 

Read more articles on company culture.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photos: Getty Images

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.