Digital technology has transformed many workplaces, heightening efficiency, crossing time zones, and easing previously laborious tasks.
But as our time becomes increasingly consumed by electronics, face to face contact has never been so important in getting the job done.
In accountancy, “big data”, the ability to gather and interpret information from multiple sources, has huge potential for predictive power, to help accountants to advise financial teams on how to run a business, says Sylvia Tsen, Executive Director at the International Federation of Accountants.
However, without increased interpersonal skills the full potential of such digital advances may not be reached, she cautioned.
“People have a perspective that accountants are just beavering away at numbers and quite often that’s not true. Accountants are working in a very organic way. They’re bringing the numbers and having a conversation, whether with the business owner or with the bank,” she said.
“I think the human element is still very important and needs to be used right now for particularly complex finance investment or business decisions where numbers are involved.”
Accountants need to realise that they are in a “unique position,” she argued. “The numbers are a language so they’ve got to really build up their soft skills because we’ve got all the data now. They’ve got to improve their communication skills, their analytical skills.”
Face to face communication remains very important because so much communication comes from “non-verbal cues,” Tsen added. “For example our gestures, our tones, our rolling of the eyes.”
Tsen’s views on the importance of the “human element” in the workplace are widely shared across a range of industries around the world.
“There hasn’t been a single case in which I can attribute successes in any of my projects without the element of meetings in person,” said Jacob Puthenparambil, a former diplomat and journalist, and now partner of Asia-based PR company, Redhill communications.
Heather Roy, Secretary General of Eurodiaconia, a European network of social justice NGOs based in Brussels, Belgium, said physical meetings were vital to good working relationships.
“We have members all over the continent, so it is impractical to see them physically any time we want to discuss anything. We need to use email, skype and webinars,” she said.
“But this always works much better if we have met physically at least once,” Roy added. “There is a connection [that] can only be built by meeting each other.”
The same applied to working with her own team, she said. “We could all just send each other an email but actually, sitting down together means we can reach each other emotionally, see where body language might betray stress or concern,” said Roy.
“Critical thinking, probing and questioning of ideas is much easier when discussed face to face.”
Sushobhan Gupta, an IT manager with a leading software firm, said that however effective virtual communication was in terms of cost reduction, that problems were often solved faster through face to face meetings.
“I manage teams and clients across geographies and timezones,” he said.
“Even understanding the problem is much easier when we go to a whiteboard and scribble the different approaches and designs rather than go through lengthy design presentations over virtual meetings.
Many a time, personal interactions over a phone expedited the resolution, which otherwise was stuck in a bureaucratic maze of emails.”
Jennifer Volk, a database specialist with a leading British charity, said that dealing with clients or colleagues face to face was the best working option, depending on the task and timezone involved.
“I find that if I only have “remote” conversations with someone and have never met them, it is much more difficult, because you are missing the body language, aspects of tone, facial expressions which help provide context and understanding,” she said.
“I found this especially when I was training a group of people based in Singapore, whose first language was not English. I had a lot of very difficult, one-sided training calls with them, then went out to train them on site for a few weeks,” said Volk.
“After returning, our interactions were transformed – they “got me” – and it made it much easier to bring humour and a two way dialogue into play, meaning that our working together was much more productive and enjoyable.”
Volk believes a misunderstanding on email can escalate quickly, leading to non-productive days trying to clarify it, a view shared by Ryna Sherazi, who also works in the charity sector, based out of London and tasked with finding investment for social projects.
“A lot gets misinterpreted and I have found it can be inefficient using email in particular where one spends more time really crafting an email so as not to be misinterpreted, and more time dealing with miscommunication,” she said.
“Additionally it creates little space for debate. We have to weigh up: is it easier to just say OK to something not perfect, or continue with an email stream for the solution that is great for everyone?”
This anecdotal evidence finds resonance with Professor Mark Griffiths, a chartered psychologist who teaches at Nottingham Trent University and who has written about the merits of a digital detox.
Griffiths believes workers can often get more done without the distraction of technology. “I do think it makes a difference in productivity and engagement and just being able to think,” he said.
“I’m the single most productive person in this university in terms of output. And maybe one of the reasons for that is because I don’t waste time looking at all these other things.”
Sometimes switching from technology is also a matter of trust.
Harshal Shah, a high end wine importer and exporter in Dublin, said that establishing a rapport by meeting clients was crucial to his job.
“A lot of money exchanges hands before you have the product,” he said, adding that meeting in person provided “an unconscious level of trust that you don’t get over email or Skype.”
And in the end, perhaps it is simply a question of self-preservation, of balancing human jobs against the encroachment of digital advance.
“Whenever we talk about technology it’s so exciting and we talk about opportunities but I think in any profession it’s really important to talk about consequences as well because, not just in the accounting profession, many of us are thinking what does this mean for jobs,” said IFAC’s Tsen.
“You just have to write yourself into the technology,” she said. “Indications are that we have to act really quickly to equip our young talent and existing accountants to improve their skill set.”
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.