Ghosts in the workplace – digital vs face-to-face interaction

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Business is running head-first into a quandary.

Amid a growing cry from employees and candidates for flexible and collaborative ways of working, underpinned by greater technological and social media integration, there is an equally loud voice valuing face-to-face communication and viewing social media as a key distraction to their productivity.

“When the government introduced the right for every employee to request flexible working in June 2014, the way was opened for almost 20 million people in the UK to ask for different work patterns,” says Matt Weston, director at Robert Half UK.

Virtual interaction

However, almost three and a half years later, there remain calls for improved policies on flexible working, especially among younger generations. According to Robert Half research with UK HR directors, demand for flexibility (cited by 40%) and employee engagement (38%) are the top challenges that employers currently face. Meanwhile, 60% of HR directors believe giving employees greater autonomy over working practices can increase productivity.

Yet more research has found that on the one hand young employees want social media to be better integrated into their workplace, but that they also find social media to be one of the biggest distractions to their productivity. Additionally, these generations also see flexible work patterns as more important than healthcare coverage, yet they also want improved offices and value one-on-one interaction in the face of the increasing isolation brought about by our digital lives.

“Despite the introduction and proliferation of new technologies at work, Millennials and Gen Z value the in-person communication that comes with a traditional corporate office much like older generations do,” says Dan Schawbel, Research Director at Future Workplace. “At the same time, they also seek flexible hours and telecommuting that two-thirds of companies still fail to offer. Companies that want to successfully recruit, retain and grow their young talent must look to corporate culture as their competitive advantage.”


Happiness is an often-cited measure of a contemporary corporate culture. Happier people are more productive, more loyal, care more about their work and enjoy better workplace relationships.

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier,” says Ros Toynbee, director and lead coach at The Career Coach. “These are the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked the lives of 724 men over 75 years and discovered that social connections are really good for us and loneliness kills. Studies in the UK have had similar findings. The Cost of Loneliness to Employers by New Economics Foundation 2017 is discovering loneliness affects adults of all ages (not just the elderly as usually assumed) and that one million workers in the UK feel lonely, with estimated costs to business at £2.5 billion. It’s therefore in employers’ interests to take both reactive and preventative approaches to minimise the loneliness of their employees.”

Toynbee even thinks the trend towards remote and flexible working may now have gone too far. Like many working parents, she has personally benefited from the flexibility of being able to work from home, to do the school run and to work from a laptop and a smart phone, even finding greater levels of productivity.

Yet she also highlights how working alone comes with mental health risks related to loneliness and isolation. “Home life can blend into work life and it’s easy not to have a cut-off point when you have started or stopped work. Working from home full time is probably not very healthy over time, even for the most introverted person, the personality type most associated with being happy working by themselves.”

Creating balance

A mix of home and office working appears to be the best answer for many employees and employers. “Employees are happiest having a physical place where they feel they belong – their team is there; other people in other teams can find them; finding a colleague to run an idea past and to develop it or be more creative is effortless; and being seen, no one is out of sight and marginalised, which I see happen too often in professionals who work from home or work part time in the office,” says Toynbee.

And while new technology is widely viewed as an enabler for better communication, it needs to be handled well, as it can just as easily be a distraction, a burden and eat into people’s ability to communicate face-to-face. Indeed, face-to-face communication can be 34 times more powerful than email, with people underestimating their powers of persuasiveness face-to-face, while being over-confident in written form.

“Companies investing in social media platforms internally must not overlook how they can get staff talking more often and to a broader range of people inside and outside of their organisations,” says Toynbee.

Use your mouth not your keyboard

Furthermore, there is the physical health detriments of too much screen time, which makes us sedentary, affecting weight and sleeping. “We will feel happier – and we may well get our problem solved more efficiently – by getting out of our chairs and talking face-to-face,” says Toynbee. “We also need to read people to really know their feelings about change or things happening in their teams. If we don’t take the time to read body languages and the faces of our colleagues, true communication won’t occur.”

Lastly, a lot of the positive advances in workspaces can only be a good thing, even if some, i.e. slides between floors, sleep pods, bean bags, video games and free food, may seem childish or faddish, but who wants to work in drafty or stuffy grey office blocks, or in basements with no natural light?

“Employers must consult with staff about what they really need to feel connected and want to come to work every day and they will get it right,” says Toynbee. “Pool tables will probably not be inclusive and hit the mark for most.”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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