There was a time when "let’s have a chat" meant an invitation to the local coffee shop or staff dining area for some quality face-to-face interaction. 

But in today’s digital workplace, the simple task of meeting for a chat takes on a whole new dimension. Will it be an online chat, and if so, will it take place over the phone, instant messaging, on a social network or through email?

More Management, Less Talk 

Meanwhile, the typical line manager’s sphere of influence continues to expand to responsibility for more and more employees. In the industrial age, a manager might have supervised the work of five subordinates on average. By the 1980s, that number had grown to 10 subordinates, and with the digital workplace, the number continues to expand.  

That lack of in-person contact has led to some highly publicized negative situations such as firing by email. Yet the need to have line managers more actively engaged in dialogue with their direct reports is also being fueled by the more positive push to end formal performance reviews in favor of more frequent and less formal chats. 

Back to Conversational Basics

In response, we are seeing efforts to bring the face-to-face element back into chat. In their ebook, "Conversations at Work: Promoting a Culture of Conversation in the Changing Workplace," co-authors Tim Baker and Aubrey Warren make a case for getting back to conversation as the basic building block of human interaction and organizational productivity. 

Part of their mission is to re-introduce a culture of conversation, whereby relationships are built, knowledge is shared and new capabilities are gained, all leading to more constructive and informed decisions being made. While Baker and Warren don’t entirely frown on online discussions, they recommend that specific practices for incorporating online discussions into the milieu of personal conversations be firmly in place.

Conducting Authentic Conversations 

UK consultancy, The Right Conversation makes the additional point that the conversations required by today’s more inclusive management styles differ vastly from the one-way, ‘command and control’ conversations common back in the industrial era. 

They emphasize the need to remove the barriers to authentic conversations as a prerequisite to developing the new skills needed to conduct and engage in today’s constructive workplace conversations. 

Collaboration Increases Productivity

In its 2012 report entitled, The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity through Social Technologies, global consulting firm McKinsey echoes the same call for creating a culture for online collaboration, calculating that the more effective use of online social tools could improve staffers’ personal productivity by as much as 25 percent. 

We believe this thinking dovetails with the need to prioritize deeper and broader online discussions over simpler online media consumption if organizations are to capture the dividends available from the effective use of enterprise social tools. 

Which Conversations Enhance Communication?

But as this article indicates, it is also important to factor in the online-offline digital divide, emphasizing how online and face-to-face communications can coexist and complement each other for maximum benefit. 

Learning Opportunities

With this idea in mind, we have created a framework to consider when embarking on your next enterprise communication initiative:

diversity and intensity - two factors which impact the quality of conversations

The two dimensions we have chosen are the diversity of participants in the conversations and the intensity of the conversation itself, measured in utterances per participant. The diversity dimension lends itself naturally to digital facilitation, whereas the intensity dimension favors in-person chat. 

That means that organizations must consider the core purposes of their intended communications, both in terms of the diversity of the participants and the intensity of the discussions required. 

We have also included the chatbot, simply to acknowledge its potential as an emerging conversational element, though currently limited to short answers and conversations like ‘where can I find a good cup of coffee around here?’ 

Conversational Types Can Coexist 

There is a natural tension between diversity and intensity in conversation because it’s hard to have an intense conversation with a large number of participants. But that tension doesn’t mean different types of conversation are an either-or choice. 

A line manager can easily mingle face-to-face interactions with informal staff interactions online. Teams can operate day-to-day remotely and online but come together in person when the context dictates the need for a more intense level of interaction. 

Bottom line, organizational conversations don’t come down to digital or face-to-face but rather digital and face to face.

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.