27 September 2023

Virtual’s virtues — and vicissitudes

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Carol Kinsey Goman* gives her reasons why virtual working must never completely replace face-to-face contact.

Regardless of how the future plays out in your organisation, 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.

However, 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.

There is also 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.

Most people who have read my blog know I advocate a hybrid future, in which virtual mixes with face-to-face.

I do this because we lose a lot when we interact solely in a virtual workplace.

We lose social body language cues

Our brains have evolved through the centuries to be social.

We constantly assess 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.

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 this primitive emotional reaction.

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 crucial 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.

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 gage reactions, and by the listener to indicate interest in either the other person or what’s being said.

It is also used as a synchronising signal. 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.

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 another more often and hold that gaze for longer periods of time.

You can often judge relationships by the amount of eye contact exchanged: The greater the eye contact, the closer the relationship.

When your colleague gazes blankly into the distance or visually scans the room, she is ‘saying’ with her eyes that she has 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 organisation?

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 organisation? Who’s reliable and trustworthy? How am I supposed to behave in this situation?

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 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.

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 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 a hybrid future.

*Carol Kinsey Goman is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. Her work involves Government Agencies and universities. She can be reached by email at [email protected].

This article first appeared at carolkinseygoman.com.

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