Email and Skype meetings are forcing leaders to shake up their communication habits

When Skype conversations, email exchanges and video conferences replace face-to-face conversations, leaders must adapt their communication style in order to remain in touch with employees, say researchers from ITU’s new Innovation for Leadership (I4L) project.

Business IT DepartmentResearchmanagementdigitizationDr. Alexander Richter

Digital communication tools have been around for decades, but that does not mean that we have mastered using them in the workplace. Leaders have to be especially aware of how digital interactions affect the dynamics of their team, according to Alexander Richter, an Associate Professor at ITU and head of the research project I4L, which aims upgrade the digital competencies of Danish organization leaders.

“It’s very important for leaders to understand how technology can help their team to work together, but also the risks that come with digital communication. The role of a leader today is to understand the needs of their employees in order to help them achieve their goals, and digital communication tools play an essential role in this,” says Alexander Richter.

Time waster or resource saver?
Video conferences are a perfect example that digital communication tools present both opportunities and challenges, says Richter. While online meetings can save travel time, money and enable people to work from anywhere in the world, they can also be a monumental waste of time, as many people can attest to.  

“In a workshop for Danish leaders, we showed the participants a video about the problems people have with video conferences, and everyone was laughing because it is all so familiar - people being unable to connect, losing the connection, people speaking at the same time, and so on. It is slowly getting better, but these problems do still exist in 2017, and it will take some years before the technological infrastructure is as reliable as we want it to be,” he says. 

Watch the satire video 'A Video Conference in Real Life' below:


Making up for the missing non-verbal cues

However, the challenges of long-distance communication will not end with better broadband and mobile connections, Alexander Richter points out.

“Digital communication can be difficult. In normal face-to-face conversations, you can interpret body language, but these non-verbal cues are missing in digital communication. Even in video conferences, you often can’t really make eye contact or make sure that people are listening,” he says.

The challenge for leaders, then, is to figure out how to build trust and motivate their team digitally. According to Raluca Stana, a PhD student with the I4L project, reflecting upon your specific situation and personal communication habits is key.

“Say you are a very technical person with a tendency to write sharply, then you might have to learn to use more niceties in your digital communication. If you are leading a remote team, perhaps you have to be more proactive in saying that you are available. Or if there are cultural differences between you and your team members, you may want to put some work into adapting your communication accordingly,“ she says.

Blurred boundaries between work and private life

Another challenge arising from digital communication technologies is an increasingly blurred boundary between work and private life.

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We carry our phones around from morning until evening, making us available essentially all the time. This leads to many uncertainties among employees – are you supposed to answer emails after you have left the office, for instance?

Alexander Richter, Associate Professor at ITU
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“We carry our phones around from morning until evening, making us available essentially all the time. This leads to many uncertainties among employees – are you supposed to answer emails after you have left the office, for instance? Leaders should be clear about what their expectations are – and of course follow these guidelines themselves,” says Alexander Richter. 

There are many things to consider when outlining the company policy about availability:

“Some companies have simply decided to shut down the mail server in the evening, making it impossible to check emails in the evening, but this might be problematic for parents who prefer to work when their children are asleep or in emergency situations. So the challenge cannot be solved by IT itself – leaders must think about the processes in their particular companies or departments and figure out what guidelines make sense there,” he says.

Being authentic on social media

Social media also contribute to the increasingly blurred line between the personal and professional worlds and pose another new set of dilemmas for leaders. While connecting and interacting with employees through mediums like Facebook can give new insights, it also brings up new questions about how to act appropriately.

“Before, interactions between leaders and staff took place in the office between 9 and 5. Nowadays, if you are connected to your employees on Facebook, you might stumble upon pictures of them drunk at a party. How do you react to that - are you supposed to comment or not? And how should the leader behave on social media in general, being naturally more in the spotlight?” says Alexander Richter.

First and foremost, he advises leaders to be authentic to your real-life personality.

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If you are open and outgoing, it might make sense for you to connect and communicate with employees on Facebook, but if you don’t feel like it, don’t do it just because you think you have to do it.

Alexander Richter, Associate Professor at ITU
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“If you are open and outgoing, it might make sense for you to connect and communicate with employees on Facebook, but if you don’t feel like it, don’t do it just because you think you have to do it.”

Direct and unfiltered feedback

For leaders who do feel comfortable communicating with employees on social media, there is much to be gained.

“Social media can give leaders an opportunity get direct and unfiltered feedback from employees. It is quite amazing how often and how quickly you can get ideas and solutions from unexpected sources through social media. Of course, some employees are more careful when communicating directly with senior management, but many are actually very willing to engage.”   

Ultimately, every leader has to decide for him or herself what communication style is right for them and their company, says Alexander Richter, adding that finding your own style takes time:

“Even if we are open to changes, we humans are slow at adopting new ways of doing things. Appropriating new technology takes time, and there is not one optimal way to do it – no one-size-fits-all guide. You have to reflect upon how digital communication tools can support your company or department.” 

Further information

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email viar@itu.dk