Email, instant messaging, video calls – the post-pandemic employee has a plethora of communication tools allowing them to interact and collaborate with colleagues both remotely and in the office.
However, with hybrid working set to be the preferred working model for most employees – 83% of workers chose hybrid working as their optimal way of working in a recent Accenture study – organisations are having to reevaluate how best to maintain culture, productivity and wellbeing.
At the heart of this is communication. A McKinsey & Co survey of 100 executives found a strong correlation between organisations that had seen improved productivity during hybrid working and those that had maintained and created new connections between employees.
Hybrid working challenges
According to the survey, two-thirds of the most productive companies had supported small connections between employees, such as opportunities to discuss projects, mentoring and brainstorming, compared with just 9% of the least productive organisations. But how best to facilitate these ‘micro-conversations’?
“Thanks to the pandemic, our work and communication patterns have been thoroughly shaken up and most organisations are struggling with how to shape this for the long-term,” says Dr Anne ter Wal, associate professor of technology and innovation management at Imperial College Business School.
“Most professional jobs have an element of creativity and the day-to-day problems that arise in our jobs often call for novel and original solutions. In the long term, many jobs will require strategic thinking about new directions that will break with the status quo. The relationship between this type of creative work and communication is a complex one,” he adds.
For ter Wal, the trend towards hybrid working should provide space for employees to be creative and thoughtful. However, the proliferation of emails, messages and video calls during hybrid working can make this challenging. In practice, sometimes it is easier and quicker to simply speak to a colleague, particularly when collaborating on a project.
“Creativity is a social process. Often, the inspiration for new ideas comes from spontaneous exchanges and digital communication can struggle to replicate that. On digital channels, we’re constantly in responsive mode, which leaves too little time to take a few steps back and reach the deeper level of conversation required to inspire one another,” he argues.
One of the challenges of the hybrid working model is that it can lead to the very issue employees think it can solve – burnout. Rather than freeing them to work wherever they want, employees can find themselves having to maintain both a work office and a home office, constantly switching between the two.
This seems to generally be a fault of a poor hybrid working setup, rather than the concept itself.
For example, some of this stress is related to how some employers use email and instant messaging platforms to monitor productivity – almost as a new form of presenteeism in the absence of the office.
“Some organisations are increasingly using such means of communication as a means of surveillance to ‘test’ if workers are being productive,” says Dr Mariann Hardey, professor of digital culture, technology and business at Durham Business School. “This is extremely bad for employee health, wellbeing and morale.”
Instead, employers should be managing workloads to ensure employees don’t feel the need to constantly be ‘on’ when working in hybrid models. Volkswagen, for example, configures its servers so that emails are only sent 30 minutes before the start and after the end of the working day, and not during weekends – although voice calls are still permitted at any time.
“Increasingly, being able to disconnect from constant streams of work communication will form part of staff wellbeing packages and may even become part of recruitment packages to encourage candidates to apply to a company,” adds Hardey.
Video vs voice
Pascal Coignet is regional vice president of solutions engineering at business communications provider RingCentral. He agrees with ter Wal and Hardey that digital overload is a danger of hybrid working, but suggests a traditional approach to solving it – the phone call.
“Voice calls are important in workplaces because you have to focus on the individual speaking. You have to concentrate on what they’re saying, the context behind it and the reason for the call,” he says.
This is at odds with email communication, which can quickly escalate to long threads with many individuals needlessly copied in, slowing productivity and outcomes. Voice calls also allow freedoms that video conferencing restricts – with ‘meeting fatigue’ a real issue in hybrid working.
“After Covid, people clearly had a need to see each other more, but were physically limited in doing so. Video conferencing became the thing to do, but over time people have started to get meeting fatigue. People are invited to meetings where they don’t need to say anything, but still need to turn their camera on.
“We’ve found that a lot of people stare at their own video feed rather than the person they’re talking to. We’re also seeing a trend for videos being shut off,” says Coignet.
While Coignet believes that video conferencing will continue to be an important tool during hybrid working, he argues that it will become less pervasive, with individual employees choosing the communication method that best suits them at any particular time.
“I use voice calls at the end of the day, when I might want to go for a walk or escape from my home office. It gives you the freedom of not having to sit behind your computer. With voice, you don’t have to worry about appearances or any of the other stuff. It’s just about the conversation and listening to the other person,” he says.
Coignet isn’t alone in his preference for phone calls. In a recent survey with Ipsos, RingCentral found that over 90% of business leaders consider phones as one of their main communication tools, with a majority (52%) saying it is their primary communication tool.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people value empathy, honesty and trust when engaging with their colleagues and managers. The ease of digital communication coupled with the explosion in hybrid working means organisations risk losing the connection and cohesion that comes with direct conversations in a sea of information overload.
The solution? A simple phone call can provide the personal touch and clarity of thought needed to humanise hybrid working.