In the past few decades, technology has changed the way we work and communicate. With each new digital device, tool and app, the world has become more focussed, and even obsessed, with technology as a prime means of communication.
Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic came along and turned our lives upside down, with technology becoming the only viable way for many people to communicate, learn or do business.
Seemingly overnight, bricks-and-mortar traders were forced to embrace e-commerce, restaurants and cafes went from dine-in to delivery-only, offices emptied as employees established themselves as home-based workers, and we collectively adopted the notion of being together, whilst apart.
Amid this seismic shift, social media usage thrived, and many organisations accelerated or expanded their digital PR, marketing and corporate communication strategies.
So then, what’s the role now for face-to-face communication? In a post-pandemic world, should we still create opportunities for in-person communications and engagement?
How digital technologies have changed the game
The notion of digital adoption isn’t new, however 2020 research by McKinsey and Company suggests the pandemic has been a tipping point of historic proportions, speeding up the technological quantum leap at both organisational and industry levels.
Whilst there is no denying the impact of social media on business operations in recent years, in the early months of the pandemic, companies in all sectors and regions changed the way in which their businesses operated. According to McKinsey’s Global Survey of executives, the digitalisation of customer and supply chain interactions – as well as internal operations – was accelerated by three to four years.
Now that these digital systems are in place, it’s likely many will remain. However, we believe the significance of good old face-to-face communication will ensure it makes a resurgence, albeit not quite as before.
The art of personal engagement
Anyone that’s been confined to the same four walls during a lockdown or isolation period can surely attest to the lure of human connection and seeing others in person.
Face-to-face communication – be it a quiet conversation or group presentation – is made up of more than just the message, but also body language cues, voice, and touch.
Professor Albert Mehrabian is often cited for his finding that seven per cent of messaging is derived from spoken word, with the remainder from paralinguistics and facial expression. While this is an overly simplistic summary of a specific study featured in his 1981 book Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes, it does highlight the benefit of face-to-face engagement over other forms.
Learning, conversing, and socialising through a digital means, emails and even video calls, can be ambiguous as it can be hard to gauge someone’s feelings, and often there are misunderstandings.
A face-to-face approach can lead to immediate feedback and a better understanding of someone’s true feelings and concerns.
Part of the strategy
In the digital present, we can often forget about the value of face-to-face communication. At the same time, most businesses cannot realistically reach all their stakeholders with direct human engagement.
Often what’s needed is a mix of communications techniques, starting with a strategic assessment of the types of stakeholders you are trying to reach, the differing needs of these stakeholders and the quantity and quality of information needed to be exchanged.
For example, if you were launching and selling a new app to potentially millions of users around the world, a digital-heavy communication strategy could be appropriate.
However, if you were developing a project or building within a specific community that will impact significantly on local residents and businesses, there would likely still be a place for multiple face-to-face meetings to gain sufficient understanding and insights.
As society continues to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may require a bit more planning and effort to enable health-focused, socially distanced face-to-face communication opportunities, but the benefits of doing so should make it more than worthwhile.
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