Market musings

Improving Business Communication with a Culture of Conversation

by Sasha Viasasha
July 4, 2017

Anywhere you go, you can observe intensely focused people. On city trains, libraries, coffee shops, at the office, bus stops, and even at the dinner table, people are apparently actively engaged in some task, busily engrossed in their smartphones.

But while people are busier and more connected than ever, are they more productive? Does their communication have value and relevance? Do business communication tools promote innovation, collaboration and improved productivity?

According to Hubspot, every minute the follow activities occur:

  • Facebook users share 2.5 million pieces of content
  • YouTube users upload 73 hours of new video content
  • Twitter users tweet nearly 300,00 times
  • Instagram user post 220,00 new photos 

Type, swipe and tap

In turn, this activity generates quite a bit of interest. According to one research study that closely tracked user interactions with their devices, smartphone users on average touch their phones 2,617 times a day.

Strikingly, the same study found users only spending 145 minutes actually consuming content. This paints a picture of a lot restless activity that is rather fragmentary and even compulsive. Many smartphone users continue to interact with and touch their phones into the night, and some even sleep with them.

It’s even been shown that having a screen on the horizon, even on silent, changes the kind of interactions that people are able to have. 

Partial attention becomes the new norm, as part of our awareness is continually focused on what might be happening online.

While a fear of missing out (FOMO) and always-on mentality makes willing, reachable consumers, does it create empowered employees, and does it help businesses grow and flourish?

Are all engagements created equal?

The numbers say no. While email and messaging apps are taking more and more of our time and attentional resources, they aren’t boosting productivity—or creating growth. People may be working more and devoting more cognitive resources to their work, but the goods and services their labor is producing are actually decreasing, according to the economic data. In fact, the US has entered one of the slowest growth periods since the end of World War II.

The great promise of the technological boon of the last few decades is that automation, AI and productivity tools would allow businesses to communicate more efficiently and provide better service. People would have more leisure, less stress, and a higher quality of life. Goods and services would be produced with less effort, creating lower prices and bigger profits, the ultimate win-win. Instead, people are working more, feeling more stress, and seemingly getting less done. What happened?

Information and communications technology (ICT)

The global communication infrastructure is undeniably an impressive accomplishment. It’s possible to connect instantly anywhere across the world, and to stay connected, wherever you are. In many ways, the internet has leveled the playing field, bringing information and progress to communities that had been left behind. Ideas can travel around the world and back again, enriching many along the way. Money and goods can be traded quickly, and supply chains are more efficient. Using predicative technology, ecommerce giant Amazon can anticipate demand, and ship goods close by for prime delivery. Busy families and workers can order groceries, or a ride, with just a few swipes on their phone. Information is at our fingertips, gratifying our curiosity about the world instantly.

Analysis paralysis 

But while information is constantly trickling in via our newsfeed, notifications, and inboxes, many people have difficulty finding the information they need to make their lives meaningful and their work more impactful. They struggle to make sense of the information, and to put it into its proper context. Decision making, on both an individual and organizational level, becomes less effective. 

And, while the tools to connect have evolved, it seems that we’ve lost the ability to connect with each other. Our fear of missing out might be causing us to miss what is happening right in front of us. We may prefer to interact online where it seems we have more control. But are we losing something vital when we turn from life to a digital substitute?

In her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, author Sherry Turkle takes a deep dive into the value of conversation, and how its loss is impacting our culture, the family, education, and business. Turkle, who is a clinical psychologist as well as MIT professor, explores through numerous interviews and an impressive body of research how conversation has become too risky, too spontaneous for many people. We've become used to an edited life. 

The filters provided in social media allow us to create and produce ourselves, editing out any awkward or vulnerable moments. Email allows you to carefully shape your thoughts, while messaging lets people communicate through emoticons, gifs, memes and abbreviated soundbites. It’s hard to get too deep, or pursue a really meaningful idea fully, although its possibly to generate many ideas quickly. 

The brief satisfaction we feel after every interaction becomes a substitute for accomplishment. We are less critical, less accountable and less committed. Moving from task to task, we have less cognitive resources to devote to each activity, we are less effective, less efficient, at yet the constant activity leaves us feeling like we’re really very busy and productive, after all. 

Conversation and business communication

Communication has always been a challenge for business, and of all forms, conversation has perhaps been most problematic. Formal business discourse tends to be non-dialectical, that is, primarily declarative and directive. The employee handbook was not a dialogue, and the memo did not offer itself up for remark, a meeting with the boss primarily involved listening. Feedback followed formal channels, and was usually invited. But the conversation still had its place, in business dinners, meetings, informal gatherings and even the chit-chat that occurs between co-workers at their desks or on the phone.  

The value of these many conversations, and their contribution to work, were perhaps underappreciated or even misunderstood. 

The social tended to be tacitly discouraged if not outright forbidden—an unnecessary but tolerated frivolity.  In the old workplace, the watercooler had a transgressive aura about it, much like social media has today in some workplaces. The conversation was seen as a way of escaping work, if only momentarily, after a conversation, one went “back to work.”

But what if it turns out that all those conversations are actually a part of our work, and even instrumental to it? This is the conclusion of Turkle, and many other experts who have studied the problem intensively.

Conversation, even social chatter, actually improves productivity. To study this, MIT Media lab professor Alex Pentland and Benjamin Waber developed a sensor that allowed researchers to measure the conversations people had throughout the course of their day at work. They measured voice, tone and other biometric data. People who had more conversations and were more socially engaged were more productive, whether they were speaking about work or not. 

The limits of digital channels

What if conversation is a vital part of how effective we are, both collaboratively and individually? And, if so, are interactions on social media, messaging apps and textual exchanges effective surrogates for voice communication and face-to-face interactions?

The answer, quite simply, is no. The benefits from conversation did not derive from email exchanges in Pentland and Waber's studies. These tools can augment and support business communication, and can be efficient shortcuts. For optimizing routine business procedures and expediting communication about systematic functions, these technologies are vital. But conversations are vital to everything we do, and digital connections aren’t a substitute.

In fact, a conversation might often be the only way to cut through the digital noise and gain attention. This is because auditory data is processed by a different suite of cognitive functions than the textual and visual information that dominates the internet. 

Fostering a culture of conversation in your business might be the most important thing you can do.

How do you get your employees talking to each other and to customers? Creating a conversation of culture of conversation has to be deliberate undertaking. Many young people coming into the workplace may not have the conversational skills of previous generations. And even older workers may now prefer to communicate through email or text. It seems to be the path of least resistance. Getting people to take the riskier, more difficult path requires effort, but also bring rewards in productivity and creativity.

Conversation can be emotionally challenging for many people.  Face-to-face meetings and phone calls are the least favored forms of communication for millennial workers. This is partly because they have so little experience with them. 

Learning to talk again

As less people are socialized in conversational skills at home, the task falls to businesses, who must train their employees and create a culture where conversation is rewarding, acceptable and valuable. From device-free meetings, to an insistence on picking up the phone to resolve problems and help customers, this culture must be built from the ground up, and the desired behaviors modeled and rewarded. Having positive, helpful conversations is important: if conversations are always difficult, few people will want to have them.

Training on phone etiquette and conversational skills might be as important as keeping up on the latest technology trends or productivity hacks. Conversation can be difficult, but it’s how we process and contextualize information. As Pentland and Waber discovered in their study on conversations in the workplace, people who have more frequent conversations use digital communication tools more effectively, too. And, although Sherry Turkle spoke to hundreds of people who felt like they didn’t know how to have a conversation anymore, it didn’t mean they didn’t want to. Almost all of her subjects expressed a desire, and nostalgia for conversation--even young people who had little experience with it. 

Conversation is a powerful tool that is central to the human experience. The riskiness of conversation underlines its importance. You never know when you might be editing out the seeds of the next great idea. Speaking the unexpected, and hearing your own ideas spoken creates new connections in the brain and sparks the next connection, and makes us think more critically. 

At Spoke, we believe in the power of the spoken word and its power to transform ideas into action. We want to help your business create a culture of conversation. Keep reading to learn more about how you can get employees to pick up the phone and be sure to subscribe to our blog to keep the conversation going. 

The Pocket Communication Guide for Your Millennial Employees
The Pocket Communication Guide for Your Millennial Employees