A growing body of research is quickly throwing cold water on the “digital by default” workplace design strategy sweeping the corporate world, according to a recent column from Don Pittis of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
More and more data show that video conferencing is a poor substitute for face-to-face office interaction, and the consequences of prolonged digital-only engagement could be dire for corporate culture, operational performance, and employee health.
I first raised my own concerns about the “digital by default” movement in an op-ed for Canadian HR Reporter, published in early June.
In that article, I stated:
“People are physical beings. We are social beings. We are built to connect with the people and the environment around us, not only visually and audibly via video conference, but with our full spectrum of senses. We are shaped at the deepest levels by nuanced, subtle, corporeal interaction with others – body language, non-verbal cues, physical gesture, and touch.
When we eliminate or drastically diminish the factor of our human physicality from the equation, how does organizational culture change?
What role does touch play in the high-energy relationships that fuel organizational health? What influence do all the small, private hallway interactions separating one meeting from the next have on the bonds within and between teams?
What obstacles to interpersonal connection, vulnerability, and conflict resolution are created when we no longer have easy access to a private or secluded space for that important or intense heart-to-heart?
Perhaps not everyone believes they need such physical connection to cultivate healthy teams and work relationships. But that does not mean they are correct in their assessment.”
Research appears to show those concerns were valid.
In-Person Interaction Makes a Difference
The critical missing ingredient, essential to cultural cohesion but missing from digital communication, is the intuitive, non-verbal connection we take for granted during in-person interactions.
Organizational behaviour specialist Mahdi Roghanizad from Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Business provides this example:
“Say you are seeing a person [live and in-person] for the first time. After two to five minutes of interaction, you will have a better chance of a more accurate prediction about their cooperativeness or generosity. This is how our brain evolved. This ability goes away when the same interaction happens in video-to-video communication as is happening today through Zoom or Google Meet or Skype.”
The Hidden Pitfall in “Digital by Default”
The negative consequences of “digital by default” may be less pronounced for co-workers and colleagues with pre-COVID-19 relationships built upon the trust and chemistry formed by live interaction.
But according to Roghanizad and Pittis, the data is clear when it comes to new relationships:
“As the lockdown stretches on, for hiring, for making deals, making new contacts or working with new staff or people in new positions, the lack of in-person communication will increasingly create barriers to effective business operations as institutions use up what is essentially a precious reserve of social capital.”
In other words, it should be no surprise that “digital by default” would make sense as a corporate workplace strategy for organizations that already had strong team cultures prior to COVID-19. The hidden pitfall within this strategy is the undermining effect “digital by default” will have on the ability of those organizations to grow while maintaining the strong organizational cohesion they enjoyed pre-pandemic.
As more and more organizations consider proceeding down the path of “digital by default”, they should only do so with careful attention to shifts in their corporate culture and employee engagement.
Perhaps there are some organizations with cultures strong enough to withstand the undermining effects of universal digital communication. But research seems to show most will not. Rather, as I indicated in my op-ed, workplace strategists should continue to explore hybrid options that embrace flexible rather than default digital workplace design models.
Digital communication can and should play a role in cultivating work-life balance, enabling deep focus work and maintaining productivity during times of personal, corporate, or social disruption. But there is little evidence to support the wisdom of “digital by default”. On the contrary, there is a mounting body of evidence showing default digital strategies may be dangerous for organizations dependent on health, high-performing operational cultures.
Organizational leaders and workplace design strategists should take note.