Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sounds of Silence

With the advent of email as the preferred communication device in the workplace, it's no surprise that phone calls and meetings are correspondingly on the decline. The real question is whether that is necessarily a bad thing? Does it make business more productive, by eliminating those time-wasters? The truth is that the lack of human interaction does result in a loss of certain valuable, but intangible information from being communicated among co-workers, clients and other business colleagues.

A piece in the NYTimes, The Office Phone Call Was Music to the Ears, discusses the decreasing use of the phone at work:

The waning of the office phone call is one of those cultural declines that few people are likely to lament. It’s true that the changing mechanics of the telephone itself have prompted some sentimental outbursts; a page on gives step-by-step instructions for using an old rotary phone. (Step 1. Remove the handset from the cradle with your hand.)

But the fact that a generation has grown up unaware of pulse dialing and seven-digit numbers seems meaningless when everyone still talks on the phone, constantly — on sidewalks, while riding the bus, in line at the store. That we’ve transferred a lot of office business to e-mail — well, who cares?

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How can anyone get a grasp of an industry’s pertinent relationships or decision-making time frames, let alone the fragility of a particular office’s egos, if there are so few chances to hear these people talking to the outside world? The office phone call, properly overheard, is really the cheapest, easiest way to transmit institutional knowledge.

At first glance, there are reasons e-mail seems a boon. It leaves a paper trail. It allows you to formulate responses, rather than having to think on your feet. And if anything has gone wrong, we prefer not to be aurally assaulted. Every time you answer a phone call, you introduce uncertainty into your day.

But this attempt at self-preservation is counterproductive. What else is lost when we skip the call? It’s not just institutional knowledge, but also all the information conveyed through the attendant rituals of phoning.

* * * *

Ultimately, resorting to e-mail rather than picking up the phone results in not merely a quieter workplace but also a feebler one. Until we can convince senior employees to do a better job of sharing what they know about business and how they know it, we’re all better off making phone calls — and eavesdropping on those of others.

Ditto meetings. Much as we like to complain about what a waste of time meetings are, there is a certain value to meetings, even if it's just an opportunity to communicate with others. As the WSJ notes, Another Meeting? Good. Another Chance To Hear Myself Talk:

[W]e are, by nature, needy huddlers and cuddlers. The same person who disparages meetings -- an exercise as easy as shooting fish in a barrel -- sometimes secretly thinks they can be productive, can be a totem of status or, at the very least, can be a great forum for the latest joke material. They can also change the day's tempo -- if only by introducing cinnamon buns.

Surprisingly, a study to be released later this year shows a great number of meeting moaners are total fakers.

Steven Rogelberg, a professor of industrial organizational psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and a group of colleagues found that among people surveyed about their last meeting, 69% rated them at least "good," while only 16% rated them "poor" or worse. And although 50% said they complained about meetings, more than 60% of these complainers admitted that they either "don't mind them that much" or "enjoy them."

Asked what their ideal work day would look like, two-thirds of respondents said it would include at least one or more meetings.

The disparity between public distaste toward meetings and private affection is likely due to the stigma attached to admitting you like them. It's declaring yourself either a show-off or a sheep -- and definitely a time-waster. "If you say that you dislike meetings, you're able to latch on to this rugged individualism," Prof. Rogelberg says.

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"The drive for social connection is a very strong one," says Nicholas Epley, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. Sitting in a cubicle is "stupefying" and isolating, only intensifying a social need.

David Mazel, a research analyst, thinks people like meetings because "you can stay busy without accomplishing a thing." He says "having gone to the meeting is the work."

I tend to agree that email is often overused and has it's own downside as a form of communication. Nuances that are easily understood with human communication can be lost in email translation, causing confusion or even worse, misunderstandings of motives or intentions. I may be a techie, but it drives my crazy when the person in the office next door emails me with a question rather than getting up and coming to my office to ask me. I will often respond in person rather than hit reply. Besides the fact that it's good to get a little exercise by getting up and walking around the office on occasion, the in-person interaction also has its value.

Email doesn't necessarily save time either. As an attorney, I believe that any written communication needs to be composed in a professional manner, email or otherwise. So, I draft and edit an email the same way that I would a memo, which means that it can take time to compose a response. If I think it will be quicker to respond verbally, I pick up the phone. Sometimes I do that because I feel that what I need to say is sensitive enough that I don't want to commit it to writing that could be seen by others.

Although I don't have a lot of meetings, in part because my clients are scattered geographically, I do still communicate a lot via telephone. Some days, I feel like I'm on the phone at the office non-stop. On balance, I do think it is a more productive way to convey information. For me, as a lawyer, I think it's important to do more than just answer a question that may be posed. Talking through the problem allows more of a give and take to discuss the issue posed and explore other alternatives and options. express

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