Is online media stifling your staff’s offline social skills? Try an email diet!

Do excessive social media and electronic communications stifle socialization skills?

Phone-wearing 1950's couple

Too much technology-based communications can make tech heads socially dead (Image courtesy

While in private life social media has helped people find lost friends, new love interests or client prospects, on a personal communications level excessive reliance on electronic forms of communications can have a detrimental effect on one’s professional life and career.

Bes Zain from The Reasoner says in her blog post “Thought: Are online social networking sites destroying the offline socializing skills of people?”

In reality, when you observe such people, including yourself, you realize how being good at online socialization actually destroys a lot of out offline socializing skills.

As an ecommerce and online marketing executive, I have seen a change in my  staffs’ professional social skills over the last few years- first as the iPod came out, then as Instant Messaging, and now as texting and social media began to surpass real conversations.

My brother, Dr. Kevin Bartram, an orchestra conductor at the University of Mary Washington, has seen the same phenomenon. Musicians must learn to listen to each other to play at a superior level, and the camaraderie of socializing at the beginning of a rehearsal is an important part of the bonding necessary to create a “tight” group. One year he saw a dramatic switch as many of his students came in with MP3 players, listening to their own music on headphones and not interacting at all with others. After this, it has become harder and takes longer to build the listening skills needed to create great music.

Creating a great work team that listens to each other and works well requires the same interpersonal skills.

In the divisions I have managed, I have seen many younger personnel  come in with great technical skills but more and more socially awkward and less able to interpret body language or work well with others- particularly of different generations. They want to avoid face-to-face meetings and when they are in them, they often blurt out comments that are not acceptable to older generations in the room and are either oblivious to or are unable to “read” the reactions of others in the room, causing many to short circuit their careers.

Eventually, when everyone in a company has grown up in a world without live interpersonal communications, perhaps this lack of offline social skills will be less noticeable and less necessary. But in today’s mixed generational (and mixed technical skill level) environments like most big corporations, the government- or families!- this lack of in-person social graces is causing a lot of problems.

How to bridge this social skills gap?

In a couple of extreme cases to break the habit of “throwing their problems over the cubicle wall” via electronic communications when a real life conversation via phone or in person would be much more effective, I have had to limit the number of instant messages, texts and emails I allow staffers to send me. In one case, I had to limit them to one email and one text or instant message a day (with 50 staffers, plus communications from an email-heavy company, I couldn’t keep up with the multiple in-boxes)! An email stream would go on for days when one good fifteen-minute conversation or half-hour meeting would have resolved the whole issue.

I told them they had one email; they better make it good! And meanwhile, my door was open for them to pop in and ask a question (and I was always walking around to make myself available to my teams).

When I put them on their “online communications crash diet”, I brief the group by telling them they need to choose the appropriate communication method for the problem at hand:

  • Text or IM (instant message) for a short, definitive statement or question that needs immediate answer to an individual.
  • Facebook or Twitter for a statement or question to a group of “Followers.
  • Email or a forum for collection of information from or disseminating information to a group, making a record of a communication or asking a non-immediate question with multiple parts.
  • Teleconference or phone call to continue an ongoing conversation or brief a group; a webinar with live audio if visuals are also required for the briefing.
  • Webinar or in-person classroom environment for training a group.
  • In-person meeting or conversation to brainstorm, ask questions that may lead to other questions or into multiple topics, or to defuse a situation. (If all the personnel are scattered geographically, a live interactive video conference where all members can see as well as hear each other is preferable, particularly when starting a project or making big decisions or crafting strategies.)

Typically within a month or so of imposing this “electronic cold turkey” on my staff, I have seen tensions and mistakes drop, inter-personal communications and teamwork rise, and our overall productivity and output quality improve as fewer off-the-mark communications and misunderstandings arise.

So try the “Online Communications Crash Diet” with your teams; I highly recommend it!  Now if only I could get the rest of my organization to go along with this…. 😉

QUESTIONS FOR READERS AND MANAGERS: Who in your personal or professional life uses the wrong technology for a particular communication need? Are there tools you restrict the use of in your family, workplace, and if so, under what circumstances? (No texting at family meals or during in-person meetings, for example)? Please share your examples in a comment. 

– Michele Bartram


2 responses to “Is online media stifling your staff’s offline social skills? Try an email diet!

  1. It’s hard to deny the efficiency of electronically-aided communication. A few clicks and we have our message shared. But the depth and range we’d garner from working together, brainstroming sessions as you mentioned, is lost in that one-way communication format. I agree whole-heartedly with your thesis. Good Luck wrenching that technology out of the hands of young folks, though.

  2. Michele,
    You raise some really excellent points here. I will admit that I send IMs to team members sitting directly across the hall instead of getting out of my seat on some occasions, and that is something that I probably should avoid whenever possible. I also know that electronic communication has changed the way we work in more fundamental ways. Before email and vpn, teams were much more likely to be centrally located and telework was far less prevalent. Now employers are taking advantage of electronic communications to reduce overheads and allow employees more flexibility. As your post points out, this is a double edged sword.

    I would be curious to see more evidence of the productivity impacts of a online communications diet. I think the results you have achieved are quite telling.

    Thanks for sharing!

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