Regardless of how the future plays out in your organization, one thing is certain: virtual meetings are here to stay. It’s easy to see why. They are cost-effective, as there is no need to pay employees to travel and incur related expenses and, when successful, they enable talented peers to work together regardless of location and organizations to mine the collective wisdom of a widely dispersed employee population.
But the virtual workplace comes with its own unique challenges: It is more difficult to get virtual teams to bond, harder for informal leaders to emerge, tougher to create genuine dialogue, and easier for misunderstandings to escalate. In addition, there is a very real syndrome called “Zoom fatigue,” where the stress of sitting in one position, staring at a screen, and trying to maintain energy in a simulated environment takes its toll.
If you’ve wondered why this is true – and why I am hoping for a hybrid future, in which virtual mixes with face-to-face, take a look at what we lose when we interact solely in a virtual workplace.
- We lose social body language cues
Our brains have evolved through the centuries to be social – constantly assessing what others may think or feel, how they are responding to us, if we feel safe with them, and if they feel safe with us. So potent is this interpersonal link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, we subconsciously match our body positions, movements, and even our breathing rhythms with theirs.
The world has changed, technology has advanced, but our body language processes are still based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasn’t changed much since humans began interacting with one another. Getting to know and trust people still drives us to understand their internal state of mind and character. Nonverbal communication via body language sensitivity conveys vital information through a rich unconscious and universal language that transcends spoken language.
- We lose touch
More than an inconsequential ritual or a polite greeting, touch in the form of a handshake is often the very foundation of a relationship. According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientific evidence supports what successful businesspeople intuitively know; a handshake activates neural circuits in the brain that predisposes us toward positive feelings of competence and trustworthiness – encouraging positive cooperation while suppressing negative feelings and avoidance behaviour.
Maybe that’s why another study on handshakes at trade shows found that people are two times more likely to remember you if you shake hands with them. The trade-show researchers also found that people react to those with whom they shake hands by being more open and friendly.
- We lose eye contact
Over the course of a conversation, in-person eye contact is made through a series of glances – by the speaker to make sure the other person has understood or to gauge reactions, and by the listener to indicate interest in either the other person or what’s being said. It is also used as a synchronizing signal. For example, people tend to look up at the end of utterances, which gives their listeners warning that the speaker is about to stop talking.
Eye contact also reveals a lot about our emotional state. We reduce eye contact when we are talking about something shameful or embarrassing, when we are sad or depressed, and when we are accessing internal thoughts or feelings. On the other hand, if a speaker actively seeks out eye contact when talking, he or she is judged to be more believable, confident and competent.
We increase eye contact when dealing with people we like, admire, or who are in power. In more intense or intimate conversations, we naturally look at each other more often and hold that gaze for longer periods of time. In fact, you can often judge relationships by the amount of eye contact exchanged: the greater the eye contact, the closer the relationship. And when your business colleague gazes blankly into the distance or visually scans the room, she is “saying” with her eyes that she has, in effect, stopped connecting with you.
- We lose informal conversations
What do you think you’d hear if there was a microphone in every coffee station, doorway and stairwell in your organization so you could listen to people’s conversations? Certainly, you’d hear the latest gossip – but that would be a small percentage of the talk. Most of it would revolve around issues like these: Where is the knowledge in this organization? Who’s reliable – trustworthy? How am I supposed to behave in this situation? Have you ever dealt with this customer – problem – manager before? Did “so and so” really retire, or was he asked to leave? How is your project going? Where are the good restaurants in the area? How do you find great childcare?
During the break at an international conference where I was speaking, the conference coordinator wisely told me, “Carol, all of the important conversations are taking place around the wine and cheese table.” You can call this small talk – but in these informal conversations, knowledge is exchanged, personal connections are made, trust is deepened, and often, innovation is sparked.
Essentially, in a totally virtual workplace, we lose the amazing power of human-to-human connection. Because we can easily read facial expressions and body language, the conversations we have in-person are often deemed to be more credible and beneficial than those done via technology. For building and deepening relationships, face-to-face is undeniably the richest and most effective communication medium. Because it is visceral, intimate and immediate, it remains the most powerful human interaction.
I hope to meet you in the hybrid future!
Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. For interview requests, click here.
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