Workplace Communications: Yes, Sometimes We Still Need to Talk

I’ve been picking up the phone and calling my most important clients,” he said. “You can’t stop because there’s no email.

This was a quote based on the outage of MS Outlook this past week. The Washington Post headline blared MS Outlook outage brings offices back to the 1980’s.

For the people who were working in corporate, this was an era when there was no email to speak of, and for that matter, no computers. I had an office on Sixth Avenue in New York at that time and all I had was a phone on my desk. That was it.

Afraid of being out of touch?

But I was in sales back then and that was all I needed. I broke every sales record at that time with just a phone. Even today, when I need to get it done and over with, I simply pick up the phone and dial.

As I read that Washington Post headline, I thought that maybe, just maybe, we could get more done if we did not hide behind the modern-day forms of communication. We have conversations today but they are ground in modern technology: email, and increasingly, text messages, Facebook messenger, Twitter, etc.

I travel quite a bit and I notice that in airports that you can always tell where the power outlets are because people are congregated around them recharging their mobile devices. They are being charged not, for the most part, to make a call, but to be able to communicate across the other platforms.

As you notice people, everyone is staring at the screen. My 85-year-old mother-in-law mentioned to me a while back that every time she travels she notices that people are not talking on their phones but are staring at the screen.

I realized that this was a conversation that I could not continue with her because she just would not understand what I was talking about. She uses her cell to make a call and then turns it off immediately. She thinks it costs more to keep it on.

Are we that afraid of being out of touch? Here in the Middle East where I work, everybody basically has two (2) phones and some will have three. When I’ve asked why, I never seem to get a credible explanation.

The Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) recently turned a bank of pay phones into charging stations. No one was using the public phones, so now those old style phones provide 184 outlets and USB ports at BWI for our new style of communication

The old art of the conversation

Last week while on one of my international trips, I was sitting around the pool after work at this luxurious hotel and there were couples, families and singles all enjoying a beautiful afternoon. No one was having a conversation and everyone was staring at their mobile devices.

Yes, families were spending their vacation together and everyone was focused on their screen. Couples having a leisurely dine were doling it, and even businessmen were sitting and “screening.” Absolutely no one was having a conversation.

I realized then that there will be workers in years to come that will be lost when it comes to engaging in a conversation. There is a saying in the south where I grew up, and it is called “chewing the fat.” That means a conversation that consists of small talk.

In the Middle East, small talk is the beginning of the conversation. You can’t just walk in and talk business. That comes later, but first, it’s how are the kids, how is the family, or how was your weekend?

You chew the fat for a while and then you get down to business. Building that relationship is paramount. Having that conversation solidifies the bond and eases the flow of business.

But, I fear that we’re developing a generation that is losing out on this ability to build a relationship through small talk.

More conversation, just less talk

On the other hand, we are probably communicating now more than ever, with texts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. That communication is over these other platforms and not an actual, real life conversation. We are always messaging, but this in no way matches the ability to truly hold a conversation. That ability enables you to build a narrative around your conversation.

It’s important to listen to new ideas, respond, and discuss because we all learn through the constant interaction of people verbally talking. Having the ability to talk, whether by phone or face-to-face, has many advantages for business people, but especially building a narrative around a theme and to carry that thought out.

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The ability to stand up and walk someone through your thoughts will train you for presentation skills, one-on-one business meetings, negotiations, and other things line that. But, when you hide behind your thoughts on a device or technological platform, you will not be able to build on that portion of your development.

Just do it with the phone

My daughter, who I connect with almost daily even though we are 7,000 miles apart, would prefer to carry on through GChat than to just call and talk. However my unwritten rule is that after three exchanges, I will pick up the phone.

That same rule applies to email. How many times have you heard, “I sent you the email and I am waiting for the response.” If you are waiting for a response, just pick up the phone and get it resolved.

I know of some companies that will not allow anyone to bring their devices to meetings because it has gotten so rude that when someone is presenting a number of people are on devices. But never mind the rude factor; imagine going to someone’s office, and as you engage them, they literally do not look up because they are engrossed elsewhere.

And to top it off, they put the phone down and ever so frequently glance at the device to see the response. They may be listening to you but not really because their mind is in another place.

This phenomenon will play out in organizations in the years ahead with different styles of communication becoming much more prevalent. Or for that matter, how do you manage and really get to know your people when their preferred method of communication is different from yours? These are things we will need to deal with.

The new art of communication

We all feel most comfortable with people who communicate the way we do.

Texters love texters. Talkers love other talkers. Based on those similarities, we are less likely to misinterpret their messages or motives and much quicker to connect with and trust them.

That said, there are predominant communication styles, so most of the people we interact with at work are likely to have a different communication style from our own. This means that the odds actually favor miscommunication!

Avoiding derailed communication at work means understanding and learning to interact effectively with all types of communicators. That is why I live by my phone as the deal closer. When I want to stop the back and forth with emails, picking up the phone and having that real conversation stops (or abates) the back and forth flow. That way, neither me nor the receiver have anything to fall back on as an excuse.

So my advice is this: when you want it done or need to get it done, go to the old tried and true — punch in the numbers and you are on your way to getting it done.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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