By David DuBois
A troubling workplace problem has emerged that few employers ever imagined – which more and more commiserate about – and wonder how to handle. As a group, their young employees do not know how to connect well with people face-to-face.
While these up-and-coming staffers wow their bosses with digital technology knowledge and social media skills, they clam up when they meet a client, participate in a business pitch or find themselves in any other formal occasion with current or prospective customers. They become voiceless at a lunch with senior leaders and rarely ask questions at networking events. They simply lack the knack of verbal communications.
And they acknowledge it. Forty-one percent of more than 4,000 university graduates from 75 countries said they prefer to communicate electronically at work rather than face-to-face or over the telephone found a 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. A Pew Research Center and Elon University study of more than 1,000 leaders from well-known companies such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems and research scientists at universities such as Harvard, Yale and MIT foresees Millenials’ wired mentality actually impairing cognitive abilities and concluded that by 2020, Millenials will lack “face-to-face” social skills.
For employers interested in wooing and retaining customers, this face-to-face fear is troubling because they consider it so critical. A survey by the Harvard Business Review found 87 percent of professionals think face-to-face meetings are essential to seal a business deal, and 95 percent believe they are key to long-lasting business relationships. What is more, the nonverbal communication occurring during a face-to-face interaction is a critical component of the overall message. As UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian has found, 55 percent of meaning in an interaction comes from facial and body language, 38 percent comes from vocal inflection and only seven percent of an interaction’s meaning is derived from the words themselves. So the emails, tweets and status updates preferred by Millenials are a less efficient and less effective means of communication.
Kathleen Begley, Ed.D, who has written on face-to-face communications, asserts, “As wonderful as electronic devices are, they can never fully replace the intimacy and immediacy of people conversing in the same room, and it has worked for millions of years.” It is a crucial skill because so many situations emerge in the course of normal business that demand face-to-face communications such as conflict resolution, contract negotiation, relationship repair and the ever-important “chemistry check” for new business opportunities. So how should employers deal with this important issue? How can they get their future leaders to make face-to-face connections as they seek to build business relationships?
Consider these useful approaches: Take a frank appraisal of communication methods and attitudes about technology versus face-to-face interaction. Are employees emailing and texting more and meeting less for financial reasons? Are Millenials included in new business meetings and presentations and, if not, why? If so, are they encouraged, through training or preparation, to share their ideas occasionally instead of remaining quiet? Customers and prospective clients want to see the intellectual vigor of future leaders and young staff so make it a point to include them – and train them – for such opportunities.
When interviewing new employees, try to determine just how comfortable they are in face-to-face situations. Be frank about the importance of mastering this type of relationship building in a career. Emphasize that such interactions form bonds, strong relationships and trust in real-time and offer the chance to gauge the honesty of information through expressions and tone of voice.
Confer with the human resources professionals to determine what training programs should be offered – or even made mandatory – in face-to-face communication. HR departments often offer social media training sessions, but face-to-face communications are just as important. Offer training that will develop young employees’ capabilities in engaging clients and customers properly and professionally and will illustrate how this education can build and maintain relationships. Also provide insight into how and when to ask appropriate questions that reflect an interest in learning more and open the door to additional discussion.
Do not forget “social” training, reminding employees to smile and exude warmth and that nonverbal cues – looking away or making disconcerting facial expressions – often can nullify whatever message they are trying to make. In addition, face-to-face communications allows for the injection of humor in a way electronic communications cannot convey. Humor contributes positively to face-to-face meetings.
Meet face-to-face frequently with employees and let them know the importance of forging relationships with current and prospective customers or clients, as well as others in the industry or profession.
Consider investing in webcams so employees can use them in business calls with clients and others. This can help improve confidence in face-to-face communications. Urge employees to avoid emails about important subjects and conduct conversations in person, instead.
One final point. This issue is so essential, don’t delay in impressing on those who have grown up digital that, to succeed professionally, everyone must see eye-to-eye that face-to-face communication is fundamental.
David DuBois, CMP, CAE, FASAE, CTA recognizes the importance of face-to-face communications every day as president of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events™ (IAEE). www.iaee.com