Working digitally is no longer optional. Rather, it is a necessity. With the way that large and international organizations are set up, employees more and more often find themselves working and communicating with colleagues that they have never once met face to face.

The rise in international and remote work has pushed the importance of digital communication in the workplace. Apps supporting instant chat and text are becoming more and more integrated into the workplace and personal lives. But this ease of access and speedy communication does not always mean that things run smoothly. If you’ve been in any sort of relationship, you are well are that ‘Miscommunications’ can happen frequently in person. Now, imagine how frequently these miscommunications happen when you don’t hear the other person’s voice!

Social technologies have demolished the barriers of space and time, giving us almost instant communication regardless of location or time zone. But with any advanced innovation, comes a set of new barriers and threats. Although there are side effects that we cannot fully avoid, they are something that we can alleviate. Here the some of the most common barriers to communication and some of the best ways to break through them.

Barrier #1: Lack of perspective

Anyone who has ever sent a text message or email knows exactly how frustrating it can be to not know how the person you’re messaging meant their words. Although proper punctuation can be helpful, there are a lot of cracks for the right interpretation to slip through. Did they send the message from the office? From bed? Were they sick and grumpy? Maybe they were distracted, and the message didn’t address what you were discussing exactly?

If you’re unable to put yourself in the sender’s shoes, then the likelihood that your response may be unsuitable increases. Without the full context of being in the same room or knowing background on that individual, barriers in communication are too easily constructed.

Breakthrough:

There is no way to know exactly what is going on in someone else’s life unless they tell you. Luckily, they can do just that with social intranet software. Opportunities to contribute to forums or create blogs allows individuals to share information about themselves that fills in the blanks of those text-based communications. Maybe even incorporate emojis. While not traditionally seen as part of the workplace vocabulary, these universal forms of communication can aid in flexible communication. Now, colleagues can take information, have a better idea of what to say or how the writer meant their dialogue, and apply it to the future digital communications.

Emoticon communication in workplace

Barrier # 2: No body language:

There are so many ways that humans choose to communicate and a large part of that falls under the non-verbal variety.

So, what exactly counts as non-verbal communication?

Simply put, nonverbal communication accounts for every and any kind of communication that does not include the use of words.

“It includes the use of visual cues such as body language (kinesics), distance (proxemics) and physical environments/appearance, of voice (paralanguage) and of touch (haptics). It can also include chronemics (the use of time) and oculesics (eye contact and the actions of looking while talking and listening, frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate)”

With so many different kinds of nonverbal communication, it is hard to believe that digital communications like text and chat do not incorporate those functions. Many people fear that technology, as an integral part of the way that people communicate, will increasingly take the place of face-to-face communication. This would leave people too immersed in the digital world and not present enough in the real world.

Without these nonverbal cues, misinterpretations are a given. That exclamation point may confuse you. Was that last statement sarcasm or serious? Does that one-word reply mean that they are angry or assured? Body language is a necessity for smooth communication.

Breakthrough:

You’ve probably heard Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule of communication: 55% of our total communication is delivered by body language, 38% by vocal signals and the last 7% delivered by words. Well, another study at UCLA indicated that up to 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues.

In an interview of Barack Obama conducted by Prince Harry, Obama addresses the topic of social media and connection:

“Social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and get to know each other and connect. But then it’s important for them to get offline, meet in a pub, meet at a place of worship, meet in a neighborhood and get to know each other.”

Barack Obama

Digital communication is brilliant, but we should also take Obama’s advice. Where possible, follow up. Get out there and meet face to face. If meeting in person really is off the cards – for example, if you have colleagues based in Singapore while you operate from the east coast of the US – try making the occasional shift from text to video conferencing or FaceTime. Learning movements and mannerisms can go a long way in lowering the amount of miscommunications.

Non-verbal communicationCues of non-verbal communication
Source: Lifesize.com

Barrier # 3: No emotional reference

Personality and emotional traits alone can be a barrier to communication in the workplace. It is difficult to understand your coworkers 100% of the time, especially when you may just be getting to know them. Calculating in concerns such as distance, and digital communication takes those difficulties to the next level. When you deal with someone through the face of a computer screen, you are not privy to their emotional traits or personal preferences.

Everyone is different! Some colleagues are easily frustrated. Some need an in-depth explanation before they sign off on anything. Others may be offended at the drop of a hat. A study labeled ‘Does Online Technology Make Us More or Less Sociable? A Preliminary Review and Call for Research‘ by Northwestern University explained it well:

“Compare reading the tweet of your best friend or a stranger. With your best friend, you already understand their typical thoughts and feelings (see Stinson & Ickes, 1992), giving the tweet both context and an emotional richness that further deepens your understanding of your friend’s mental processes – thereby building sociability. In contrast, the tweet of a stranger lacks any underlying context, yielding less information about underlying mental states and undermining sociability.”

Northwestern University

Digital technology has a penchant for leaving communicators in the dark when it comes to these more delicate issues of intimacy and temperament. Without some level of familiarity or knowledge about your colleagues’ personalities, you are bound to get your wires crossed at some point.

Breakthrough:

Get to know the people you work with! Communication and teamwork go hand in hand. Take advantage of things like company outings and blogging via the intranet. Many modern-day workplace technologies integrate social features as standard, replicating the success seen in the consumer market: make use of those tools to like, share, comment. All these opportunities allow you to become more familiar with the people that you will be working closely with in the future and can hopefully help you bang out any inconsistencies you may experience.

Barrier # 4: Low urgency = Delayed response

According to Domo, 913,242,000 texts are sent every hour of every day worldwide, not including app-to-app messaging. But unfortunately, just sending out the message, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a response. All of us have experienced having a message go unanswered, which makes sense seeing how texts have a 45% average response rate. Emails have an even lower rate.

Email and text communication

Source: SlideShare.net

All of us are guilty of ignoring that priority marked email or declining to send that much-needed read receipt. This is because when we are behind the safety of a screen, there is no one there to hound you in person or hang over your shoulder until they get answered. They are reliant upon you actually typing and sending a response. The sense of urgency does not transfer digitally as easily as it does face-to-face, and without that, the timeliness of responses can suffer. This can result in the recipient losing trust in you, or worse, feeling like you do not value them.

Breakthrough:

The most significant thing to do is to treat others the way you’d want to be treated. While there are legitimate reasons for delayed replies, in order to limit them, you need to realize that all messages imply urgency (unless stated otherwise). If you truly cannot give a prompt response, then sending a quick note saying that you’ll address the issue later or an “I’ll get back to you” can go a long way toward improved communication.

Barrier #5: Too easy to disconnect

One of the most important distinctions between real life and the digital world is the ease in which people can distance themselves. While digital tech can bring people together all over the world, all it takes is the flick of a switch or press of a button to turn off and disconnect. In an offline conversation, conclusions are drawn based on little to no information. Unlike in an offline conversation, readers do not have the benefit of things like tone, pitch, odd pauses. This leaves us at a disadvantage when it comes to interacting digitally.

Have you noticed that it’s much easier to say some things over text than it is in person? It is the same concept. Conflicts more naturally occur in online conversations as there is a specific kind of boldness that occurs when the reader cannot see your face. Online offers more obscurity and anonymity, often increasing social distance and hindering deep interpersonal connections.

Passive-aggressive communication

Breakthrough:

Perception can work wonders in this case. Many times, the reader is creating negative context where none exists. Merely giving the sender the benefit of the doubt can save you a lot of grief and stop a miscommunication in its tracks. If you feel that your digital communication is still leaning toward a confrontation, then take a step back, and pick up the phone. There is less chance that anything will be miscommunicated that way.

Overcome the barriers

In the workplace, digital communications have significantly overtaken face-to-face contact. This shift has been driven by many forces, including the increase of remote and mobile workers and the growing population of tech-driven generations (Gen Y and Gen Z). Ironically, the very thing meant to connect us has the potential to make us less social, less deeply connected. To truly break down these digital communication barriers, communicators have to be careful not to allow chat and text to replace human contact in the workplace entirely.

There is no doubt that these digital technologies are amazing and progressive concepts. The key lies in making sure the communication is clear.