Has technology killed face-to-face communication?

67% of senior executives and managers said their organization’s productivity would increase if superiors communicated face-to-face more often.

Most of us use our cell phones and computers to inform, make requests of, and collaborate with co-workers, clients and customers. The digital age has connected people across the world, making e-commerce and global networking a reality. But does this reliance on technology, also mean we are losing the ability to effectively communicate with each other in person?

Ulrich Kellerer thinks so. He is a leadership expert, international speaker, and author. According to Kellerer, “When it comes to effective business communication, over reliance on technology at work can be a hindrance, especially when it ends up replacing face-to-face, human interaction.”

Carol Kinsey Goman: You were the founder and CEO of Faro Fashion in Munich, Germany. What did you discover about business communication in this role?

Ulrich Kellerer: The digital age has fundamentally changed the nature and function of business communication. It has blurred international boundaries allowing people to connect with each other across the world. Communication is mobilized and instantaneous, and it is easier than ever to access and share information on a global scale.

However, I’ve also seen the negative impact of digital communication on business both internally and externally. While digital methods themselves are not detrimental – in fact, many devices help us boost productivity, increase and inspire creativity – it is our intensifying relationship with the digital environment that leads to unhealthy habits that not only distract us from the “present,” but also negatively impact communication effectiveness.

Goman: In the midst of a digital age, I believe that face-to-face is still the most productive and powerful communication medium. An in-person meeting offers the best opportunity to engage others with empathy and impact. It builds and supports positive professional connections that we can’t replicate in a virtual environment. Would you agree?

Kellerer: Connection is critical to building business relationships. Anyone working in sales knows that personal interactions yield better results. According to Harvard research, face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to garner positive responses than emails. Communication in sales is complicated. It requires courtesies and listening skills that are simply not possible on digital platforms.

Interpersonal communication is also vital for a business to function internally.  While sending emails is efficient and fast, face-to-face communication drives productivity. In a recent survey, 67% of senior executives and managers said their organization’s productivity would increase if superiors communicated face-to-face more often.

Goman: In my research on the impact of body language on leadership effectiveness I’ve seen the same dynamic. In face-to-face meetings our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy. As a communication medium, face-to-face interaction is information-rich. People are interpreting the meaning of what you say only partially from the words you use. They get most of your message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from vocal tone, pacing, facial expressions and body language. And, consciously or unconsciously, you are processing the instantaneous nonverbal responses of others to help gauge how well your ideas are being accepted.

Kellerer: While digital communication is often the most convenient method, face-to-face interaction is still by far the most powerful way to achieve business goals. Having a personal connection builds trust and minimizes misinterpretation and misunderstanding. With no physical cues, facial expressions/gestures, or the ability to retract immediately, the risk of disconnection, miscommunication, and conflict is heightened.

Goman: Human beings are born with the innate capability to send and interpret nonverbal signals. In fact, our brains need and expect these more primitive and significant channels of information. When we are denied these interpersonal cues, the brain struggles and communication suffers. In addition, people remember much more of what they see than what they hear – which is one reason why you tend to be more persuasive when you are both seen and heard.

In addition to eye contact, gestures, facial expressions and body postures, another powerful nonverbal component (and one that comes solely in face-to-face encounters) is touch. We are programmed to feel closer to someone who’s touched us. For example, a study on handshakes by the Income Center for Trade Shows showed that people are twice as likely to remember you if you shake hands with them.

Kellerer: Business leaders must create environments in which digital communication is used strategically and personal communication is practiced and prioritized. Technology is a necessary part of business today but incorporating the human touch is what will give businesses the competitive edge in the digital marketplace.

Goman: Agreed!

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt How You Lead” and creator of LinkedInLearning’s video series: “Body Language for Leaders.” For more information, visit CarolKinseyGoman.com.