Connect to communicate

Building human relationships in the digital workplace



We often depict the digital workforce as something made up of futuristic individuals, mostly millennials, who intuitively make the most of technology and the freedom it purports.

But when we talk to organisations who are actually on this journey? That—unsurprisingly—isn't how they describe their workforce.

Today, employees' human attributes are often minimised to simplify how we approach work—and the lack of co-location and contact in a digital workplace will put more stress, not less, on the human aspects of working together. So how can organisations benefit from this transformation in a way that supports a human workforce? From our experience, the answer lies in embracing these human aspects, rather than naively trying to ignore them.

Digital transformation offers some incredible business advantages that many argue are essential for organisations to remain competitive. But we need to learn the lessons of earlier transformations – such as Business Process Reengineering (BPR) of the late 80s and early 90s.

In this example, BPR experts would analyse and redesign businesses to support maximum efficiency—a noble goal. Sometimes they proposed great improvements, but occasionally they really got it wrong. What happened? In some cases, they minimised the human issues. They ignored and devalued people. That includes people who maintained team cohesion by providing essential information and support; people who generously encouraged, developed and mentored others; or those who provided troubleshooting based on years of deep experience.

Essentially, anyone who contributed elements that weren't accounted for in a process diagram were ultimately eliminated, or naively replaced with something inadequate—such as replacing experts with scant documentation.

"Digital transformation offers some incredible business advantages...But we need to learn the lessons of earlier transformations."

It seems obvious in hindsight—but do we do the same thing in communications? Do we minimise things we know to be important because we aren’t sure how to adequately address them in an increasingly digital world?

For example, we know that listening is critical to good communication. But have we really accounted for how to do this in a digital world? And while there is some debate about the "7% rule," communicators know that a substantial part of communication is non-verbal. While there is an effort to use more video and real time, as well as recognising the need to augment communication with in-person events, the cost and practicality limit their use on a large scale. But we've seen organisations effectively communicate in a digital, virtual way. Not just clearly communicating information that employees need, but doing so in a way that addresses their need to connect with the communicator and their message.

Some great research done by Amy Cuddy (yes—the power pose researcher of TEDtalk fame) goes as so far as to say that leaders cannot just convey competence, but rather need to connect with employees in order to effectively persuade. As communicators, sometimes we think by focusing purely on WIIFM that we have "ticked the box." But to really get people on board, we need much more than clearly stated facts.

So what do Cuddy and her colleagues suggest is missing? Warmth. And warmth translates into trustworthiness.

Getting in touch

Perhaps there was a time when an authoritarian rank or title was enough to convince people to follow; but today, even in the most hierarchical organisations, getting commitment requires more than a decree. People need to know more about with whom they are speaking. Employees need to understand context and whether or not they can trust. There is the need for some type of relationship. This is a difficult reality for leaders.

In the days of co-location, leaders were encouraged to practice MBWA—Managing By Walking Around. This meant getting out of the ivory tower and talking to employees. This was not just in an effort to learn about the issues and problems of the front line (as the first few encounters would probably not progress beyond a polite "everything's great,” regardless of the reality), but it was an opportunity for people to get to know their leaders, to establish a relationship

    “Employees need to understand context and whether or not they can trust.”

So what do we do in the digital age? We use forums, such as "town halls," webinars and video addresses that can be beneficial but do not allow for extensive interactivity and two-way relationship building. This is further exacerbated by frequent leadership changes resulting from declining tenure across all employee groups, including executive ranks.

Developing digital relationships

Cuddy's article mentions many physical ways to convey trust as a leader, but how does that manifest digitally? For employees who are virtual, and who may never meet or even see a leader in action, how can a leader display warmth? How does "listening" work in a purely digital environment? How do more authentic relationships beyond the superficial "everything's fine" phase develop digitally? These are issues we struggled with even before digital transformation added its layer of complexity. But organisations that address this are reaping the benefits of a connected, aligned workforce who do not have to rely exclusively on in-person techniques.

At a recent JiveWorld event, several sessions were dedicated to this topic. One global organisation in particular, headquartered in Europe, discussed innovative approaches to helping leaders lead digitally by, as Cuddy puts it, first connecting, then leading. This organisation mentors their leaders on different ways to listen and develop rapport. Leaders are taught to consider their presence in the digital world. They are mentored to help them find a digital voice and style that is authentic to them that has a personal, narrative, informal style. Leaders are encouraged to “bring their whole selves” to the role to make executives more approachable, open and transparent. In another global retail organisation (a large, global bank), communication groups helped leaders host AMAs (based on Reddit’s Ask Me Anything) that provided opportunities to exhibit both warmth and competence in a supported environment.

Organisations who are preparing for the digital transformation by simply ensuring their news is available on the front page of their intranet, with simple two-way "communication" of comments and likes, may find that communication effectiveness and engagement will continue to decline. Because in the end, we are people and we need more than information. Communicators need to think about how to cultivate a more holistic view of communications that includes the relationship aspect, rather than just focusing purely on the distribution of digital information.

This isn’t unique to leadership communication. Relationships based on effective, two-way communication need to exist at every level of the organisation. When people are co-located and these relationships happen more naturally, we don't notice the significant impact they have on the organisation. When these relationships begin to deteriorate, effective communication will be increasingly difficult. The more we, as communicators, can help people connect and communicate effectively in a digital world, the more our organisations will benefit from the digital transformation.

To learn more about the importance of a human focus in the digital market take a look at Jive’s interactive PDF: People - the missing ingredient for digital transformation.


Kathryn Everest

Kathryn Everest is the global community director at Pearson and senior director of strategy at Jive Software. Previously she was a senior managing consultant with IBM focusing on social collaboration.

Gia Lyons

Gia Lyons is currently senior director of product marketing at Jive Software, where she is responsible for outbound marketing activities for Jive’s internal product portfolio. Before joining Jive in 2008, she worked as a social software evangelist at IBM.