The Communication Age or the Dawn of a Deafening Silence?
The 21st Century is often referred to as the Golden Age of Communication. It ‘s not difficult to see why. The enormous advances in technology have enabled us to communicate instantly, 24/7, with an entire global audience if we want. You could say we can now hold the world in just one hand.
The benefits to science, society and business are unquestionably immeasurable, and like electricity, we could not imagine a world today without the Internet, Social Media and Smart Phones.
Alas, the technology has come at a hidden cost, and judging by the kind of society we live in, this cost continues to rise. Looking at it from a holistic angle, this power in our hands seems to be detracting us, if not outright undermining our humanity. It sabotages the forging of bonds between us and other people. Fueling our newfound addiction to instant gratification, our access to knowledge and around the clock accessibility are busy destroying social fibres, productivity, common decency and worst of all: respect for our fellow man.
Dramatic? When last did you have a conversation with a person who didn’t look at his phone while listening to you? We are losing our resilience to deal with difficult personal situations and feel awkward when confronted with our own mistakes. Relationships are now broken up through a simple text message. People’s reputations are destroyed in a flash on Social Media (if ever there was a misnomer), couples rather look at their telephones than have a conversation when dining out…
We are losing the art of discourse. We are losing our ability to sense what other people are trying to tell us because we no longer listen. Life is dictated by the hundreds of interactions a day with our telephone. Our emotions are constantly toyed with as we interrupt whatever we were doing to check out the message alert on our pc, tablet or telephone. The spoken word is powerful as we know, but the texted word, punched in haste, one dimensional and cold is influential too, especially when it hits you from all angles right through the day. Nothing controls our behavior more than a received message. Research shows that the urge to check the status of social media and respond to an incoming message is as addictive as heroine. It has fundamentally changed our behavior, is toying with our sense of responsibility as we text and make calls while driving. It deadens our focus on whatever it is we are doing.
In my work I see the effects. Just extrapolate all of the above to the work environment. As it is, an office is a challenging environment for humans to work in. Here it is expected that you spend most of your day happily and productively with people you don’t know, who are different from your culture, social class, race, religion, age, gender, norms and values. I can think of no other place on earth that places such high demands on interpersonal skills to be productive – and stay motivated in a group of people.
When colleagues are not focused, don’t really listen, constantly interrupt their own thinking and actions, rather fire off an email than to walk the two metres to a colleagues’ desk to sort out an issue, we have the perfect recipe for disaster. I see misunderstandings, gossip, irritation, frustration, lack of cooperation and severe stress among staff. To a company this simply means poor engagement levels, deteriorating performance and – losing good people because of the bad culture being bred.
The workplace is just that. A place where we work. Where people are paid to think. A brain simply can’t think with hundreds of interruptions a day. Wired as a serial processor, a brain multi-tasking is a myth. Research shows that banning social media and private phones outright is not the answer. The addiction is simply too strong and people will revolt, openly or covertly.
Instead, employers will have to open a conversation with employees on the use of private phones and social media on the company’s network or not and come to a consensus. Moreover, in this world of chaos, the need for a company to ensure clarity and order in all those areas it cán control has never been bigger. Dust off those job descriptions, share the strategy, set realistic goals and start conversations. Manage – don’t police, coach, listen and test the temperature regularly.
Besides bringing back some order and discipline, staff must be encouraged to interact, like we used to in the days of the landline, post and telex. Bring back the early morning get-togethers where small groups of colleagues come together for a simple chat over a cup of coffee. This simple social interaction before the day starts in earnest has shown remarkable results in reducing misunderstandings, departmental grandstanding, gossip and growing stress levels.
Working on a company culture of openness, of initiating honest conversations and of stimulating constructive dialogue will go a long way to off-set the effects of the deafening silence between people in the workplace that the electronic revolution has brought . And yes, it works at home too.