Real human connections remain the most important at work

Real human connections remain the most important at work

In this era of growing technological sophistication, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the most effective type of contact is directly with other people. We tend to forget this amid all the clamor on automation; AI; VR; chatbots; smart assistants; robots; smart speakers; WhatsApp, Slack, Zoom and other communication apps; social media apps, etc. Many aspects of these innovations are positive and useful, especially with an extended audience as variations of the COVID-19 catastrophe continue. But using tech without sufficient thought tends to drown out the most vital connection of all – the human, face-to-face  connection. Real human connections remain the most important at work.

When you wish to inspire people – or move them to action – nothing compares to face-to-face communication. This more personal method of communication sends a message before you say a word. People will not only hear what you are saying, but they will also perceive the greater meaning of your tone, voice inflection, emotion, and body language. Taking the time to look people in the eye and tell them exactly what they need to know is a powerful way to emphasize and reinforce key messages. Digital tools, including AI, can’t do this.

Also, remember, “public relations” is about developing good relationships for better outcomes. Digital tools aren’t very effective for this at the individual level. Even AI, the digital wonder tool blasting around the world, is not a comprehensive solution to date: “…many organizations have lost sight of their most important asset: the humans whose jobs are being fragmented into tasks that are increasingly becoming automated. Across four studies, employees who use it as a core part of their jobs reported feeling lonelier, drinking more, and suffering from insomnia more than employees who don’t,” according to a June 2024 Harvard Business Review article.

Even though AI is becoming more amazingly sophisticated and valuable, it isn’t a full replacement for human emotional intelligence; soft skills, including communication and interpersonal skills; creativity; imagination; ethics; cultural sensitivity; intuition; and various other attributes such as adaptability.

“The world may have gone digital, but PR is still very much about people.”

Image, right: Shonali Burke, Growth Strategist.

Shonali Burke is an active and expert social PR strategist, and part-time university lecturer. As she says above, PR is still about people even though digital resources are used for more communication these days. Person-to-person communication will continue to be the most important communication for people. Just because the tech is available, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best solution. In fact, in some ways it can be the lazy solution, just as sending an email is easier than phoning or going to someone’s office to speak to them. And just think about the individual privacy problems created by the tech world!

Firms like PR-software company Prezly understand this issue: “The only way PR would achieve long term success in the digital space was to not lose sight of the one thing that makes PR – relationships.” In developing their software, the firm says their “product is going to continue to evolve to reinforce the relationship aspect of PR.” Real human connections remain the most important at work.

Employees want more face-to-face contact with their boss

Research supports the importance of human communication, even in basic situations, and in a remote mode of work. A study of German employees found that “employees preferred to communicate with their leaders via face-to-face as compared to email or phone,” which is no surprise. However, what is surprising is that “employees indicated that they wanted more than they currently have,” despite 60% of leader-subordinate communication was already face-to-face. Presumably they assumed they would experience better quality in their relationship from more contact. For them, real human connections remain the most important at work.

Keep positive with your boss

A positive relationship between boss and worker is vital! But around the world, only a minority of employees are engaged. For instance, for the first quarter of 2024, Gallup found the proportion of US employees who were highly engaged dropped 3% to 30% from 2023 to 2024, which was the lowest reported level of engagement since 2013.” The drop “was particularly acute in remote, hybrid and younger workers.”

Reliable and meaningful communication

Good communication is often the basis of any healthy relationship, including the one between an employee and their manager. Gallup has found that consistent communication — whether it occurs in person, over the phone or electronically — is connected to higher engagement. For example, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers don’t hold regular meetings with them. Gallup’s Harter says:

“Gallup also found that engagement is highest among employees who have some form (face to face, phone or digital) of daily communication with their managers. Managers who use a combination of face-to-face, phone and electronic communication are the most successful in engaging employees. And when employees attempt to contact their manager, engaged employees report their manager returns their calls or messages within 24 hours. These ongoing transactions explain why engaged workers are more likely to say their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on.”

But mere transactions between managers and employees are not enough to maximize engagement. Employees value communication from their manager not just about their roles and responsibilities, but also about what happens in their lives outside of work. The Gallup study revealed that employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged. And face-to-face is the most effective way to develop a positive relationship between boss and employee. This underlines the conclusion that real human connections remain the most important at work.

Key human skills needed

Research consistently proves that real human connections remain the most important at work. The emphasis on digital tools largely overlooks the key human skills needed by professional communicators. For instance, as the World Economic Forum 2023 Future of Jobs report noted, employers will be seeking people with these human skills even more in the next 5 years, as shown in the WEF report image below. 

The WEF notes for the image state that it shows the share of organizations surveyed which consider the shown skills to be core skills for their workforce. It shows the estimated average composition of the skill sets of workers in organizations surveyed. Skills are ranked and ordered by the share of organizations surveyed which consider the skill as core to their workforce. The WEF updates the Future of Jobs report every couple of years.

Core skills in 2023 WEF report.

We need to generate more of these skillsets. Most of them can be learnt. For instance, creativity and initiative, and analytical thinking can easily be developed, as noted in my article, “4 naturally easy ways to increase your innovative thinking.” These will be among the central skills to the role of the effective comms pro in the future, according to the WEF survey report mentioned above.

Tech tools are fine, and we certainly need them for marketing comms and for wider PR audiences. But we need the smarts to manage the new tech tools. We need the professional judgment, analytical thinking, problem-solving skills, etc to know how to use them the most effectively. We need the ‘soft’ skills to solve complex problems, apply critical thinking and analysis, use professional judgment, etc to deal with vital organizational matters in the increasingly complex business environment of today, like issue management, risk and crisis communication, change communication, employee recognition, creativity, PR ethics and privacy, stakeholder relations, and reputation, etc.

There is no doubt that your career will crash if you don’t gain more skills. And soft skills are proven to provide the best means to career progression – real human connections remain the most important at work.

Illusion of connection

Technology [including digital media] has created the illusion of connection, but unless it is used in the right way it will make people less productive, less engaged, and more lonely, according to Dan Schawbel, author of Back to human: How great leaders create connection in the age of isolation. It was instructive to see how many PR people responded to the issue of workplace loneliness last year.

Significant workplace issues like employee loneliness and team relationships all need human responses that give greater social support to our peers. We need to make our team members feel valued. For example, even small initiatives can help them feel accepted instead of alone, such as  offering to go to lunch with a new worker, or celebrating birthdays. Opening a conversation with some praise or finding personal interests in common can help to start a positive relationship.

Suggestions for greater workplace connection with peers and others

Make recognition meaningful

Employee recognition activities — including thank-you notes, milestone celebrations, and employee-appreciation events — can help provide opportunities for in-house and remote teams to celebrate and for leaders to help embed recognition into the culture of your team, your department or your organization. Recognition is a signal of value and gratitude for good work and/or efforts. It makes employees feel good and part of something meaningful. The business impact of recognition is significant, too, which is consistently found by research. You don’t have to be a boss to initiate recognition activities in your workplace.

Rachel Montañez, an expert on burnout and self-advocacy in the workplace, recommends in a 2024 HBR article that remote teams sometimes don’t feel that recognition is as “public” as it would be if they were in an in-person environment. Virtual quarterly town hall meetings, monthly virtual team meetings, or annual in-person organizational retreats are all potential opportunities to make recognition more public. But, the best way to build community with recognition is to ask relevant employees how they would like to be recognized. 

You can read more on how to give due recognition to employees in my article, “How to boost remote employee recognition.” In addition, this HBR article, “The benefits of peer-to-peer praise at work,” is worth reading.

Respond more actively to workplace chats

Rachel Montañez also recommends starting to make ground on the workplace loneliness of your peers, both in-house and remote. She advises reframing your response to the old cliché, “How are you?” This will enable you to avoid a typical, flat response like “Good, and you?” After mentally checking that the situation gives you enough time for this brief chat, use the opportunity to highlight your work and life. by saying option like these:

“I’m well, thanks. Just finished wrapping up [a project or task],” or “I’m excited to be working on [a project or task you’re proud of],” and “After work later today I’m looking forward to spending time [on my favorite hobby, a great new movie, catch-up with partner or friends, exercise, etc].” And say why you enjoy doing it. Then follow up with something like, “How’s life for you?”

Steering in a better direction

When workplaces become more supportive, performance and retention improves. Tech tools can’t solve these types of problems.

PR and professional communication are all about human relationships – internal and external. That will never change. People are the decision-makers, and therefore our profession needs to keep a strong focus on strategic thinking, using initiative and being valued as leaders.

Let’s keep foremost in our minds that real human connections remain the most important at work!

Article updated on 11 July 2024.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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