friendorfoeCommunication. From baby-boomers to millennials, everyone agrees that without this key component of  our everyday lives, work productivity is diminished, if not non-existent. In the 21st century, communication is no longer the face-to-face interaction of two human beings – quite the contrary. From open chat rooms to private ephemeral pictures, there are over 99 ways of communicating with people thanks to the popularization of digital technology. So why shouldn’t business take advantage as well?

Have they actually taken advantage of it?

Yes and no. Unfortunately, as NYU Stern faculty member Anna-Laure Fayard astutely points out, most businesses today are not taking advantage of the technology as they ought to; that is, without understanding its human dimension. Technology is only of use to an office if you use it to improve a
certain aspect through solving a particular problem. It is there to simplify our lives, and yet, while 87% of leaders now understand digitalization as a clear competitive advantage, over half (52%) of senior executives cite a lack of familiarity with technology to be a barrier to digital transformation. The
consequence? A misuse of the tools put in place.

It would be foolish to think all was lost. It is not. Far from it. Getting back on track couldn’t be easier: trusting technology for what it is useful for and getting rid of “digiphobia”. This way, you both be able to  help company culture evolve for better results and you will allow for a better use of your technology and thus gain a higher return in investment overall.

Step One: Assumptions and benefits of online communication

Fear can often overpower even the best of us. To control one’s fear, the best is to face the facts and bring down the assumptions. As such, here are a few things you ought to know about communication and online technology:

1. Going virtual does not mean being antisocial. Creating trust in a virtual context is a sure challenge. However, we should see technology as a tool to help us broaden our relationships, rather than simply replace face to face interaction.  In fact, technology has the potential to bring people together: with the arrival of millennials in the workplace, the several generations now working together will have to find a common communication ground – and where better than do that than in a new one?

2. Face to face interactions are not always the best, contrary to popular thought! Indeed, texting, emailing and voicemail actually constitute the main modes of communication in the 21st century and with good reason: they present many advantages. Often, direct interaction requires more work, and should be saved for instances where synchronous interaction is necessary. To understand which form of communication to use, simply identify the cause of your need for communication.

3. Communication is a universal action. Although it is true that whether in Japan or France, one will always find himself having to talk to others, the context of these interactions will completely change according to the country you are found in. Communication is entirely dependent on the cultural context and thanks to technology, we have just been granted access to a higher understanding of how our email might be perceived overseas.

4. Writing improves critical thinking. Written communication is not an innate skill. Whether in a collaborative document or in an online discussion thread, the ability to express your thoughts in a clear and coherent manner means being able to structure and articulate your ideas. And everyone knows that the more critically you think, the better chance a company has, for example, to identify problems early.

Step Two: Tips and tricks for a fluid transition

Although listing advantages is useful, it will not help you or your company take a step closer to using your tools correctly. So here is a list of tricks your company can use to improve the use of the technology.

1. Changing your organizational culture. This process takes time, requires patience, and should be approached as a holistic process. One way to influence change is through office design. Although it is insufficient alone, as people themselves need to decide how to use their new environment, it  is a first step towards valuing desired types of interaction.

2. Creating engagement in a virtual context. Yet another challenge of the digital era, especially when dealing with groups of people who must work together towards a common goal. To achieve this, the academic Anne-Laure Fayard got two groups of students on opposite ends of the globe to learn and work together. The outcome? Experimentation, engagement and connection.

3. Pick one type of technology and stick with it. The abundance and diversity of media nowadays is over what anyone could have thought. Often, we are faced with questions such as: Should I write an email or use Yammer? Build a PowerPoint or design a Prezi? Should I use LinkedIn, send a tweet or call with Skype? However, these questions are missing the point: powerful communication does not depend so much on the kind of media you select, but rather on making sure that the selected media is used by all in a coherent, harmonious manner.

4. Stop bad habits. From never-ending email threads to cutting and pasting skills, these are the nagging artifacts of instant communication which ultimately takes a toll on your company’s productivity and innovation. To remedy, embrace new types of mindset which do not focus on finding solutions but looking critically at problems and promoting balanced uses of technology and offline work.

5. Proximity, privacy, and permission. As we are entering the “Internet of Me” age, it is important to reconsider the human dimension in each technology we use. In her research, Professor Fayard considered the three factors of proximity, privacy and permission. Proximity describes the  likelihood of encountering others in a space; privacy includes being able to not only limit who can “overhear” your conversation, but being able to control who has access to you; and permission describes the sense of being allowed to communicate, and in what ways, in a space.

Environments that balance the proximity, privacy, and permission enable  interaction.

The challenge that is adapting to digital communication is only one if you don’t understand what digital communicating really is about: opening yourself to new platforms and ways of interacting with remote or close members of your company. Because, as George Bernard Shaw once said, the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.