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Real human connections remain the most important at work

01 Jun, 2020 Commentary, Employee engagement, experience, satisfaction

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

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 – and especially in the wake of the COVID-19 catastrophe. But using tech without sufficient thought tends to drown out the most vital connection of all – the human, face-to-face  connection.

Some things remain fundamental, and person-to-person communication will continue to be one of them. 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 Belgian 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 PR – relationships.” In developing their software, the firm says their “product is going to continue to evolve to reinforce the relationship aspect of PR.”

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

Research supports the importance of human communication, even in basic situations. 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.

Gallup’s US research found managers are responsible for a 70% of variance in employee engagement scores. Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Employee engagement is the key workplace measure due to all the benefits arising from high levels of engagement. Research supports each of the listed improvements from high engagement:

  1. Increased employee safety
  2. Better employee health
  3. Happier employees
  4. Greater employee satisfaction
  5. Better home life
  6. Lower absenteeism
  7. Higher retention
  8. Greater employee loyalty
  9. Higher customer service
  10. Better quality
  11. Greater productivity
  12. Higher sales
  13. Higher profitability
  14. Higher share price.

A positive relationship between boss and worker is vital! But around the world, only a minority of employees are engaged. After surveying 19,000 employees internationally in 2019, ADP Research Institute found only 16% of workers overall were engaged, as shown in the chart below:

Proportion of engaged workers in various countries in 2019

Chart: Harvard Business Review, May 2019.

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 Chief Scientist, Jim 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.

Key human skills needed

The emphasis on digital tools largely overlooks the key human skills needed by professional communicators. For instance, as the World Economic Forum 2018 Future of Jobs report noted, employers will be seeking people with these human skills even more in the next 5 years. It will be interesting to see the impact on jobs caused by the pandemic:

  • analytical thinking
  • creativity and initiative
  • critical thinking and analysis
  • complex problem-solving
  • leadership and social influence
  • reasoning, problem-solving and idea-forming
  • trustworthiness and ethical behavior.

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 web 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.

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. These nudges can steer a workplace in the right direction, creating a healthier, more supportive culture. 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 the human connection is the most important of all!

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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