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More than 80 percent of employers rely heavily on e-mail communications with overseas staff, according to the Santa Fe Group’s 2014 Global Mobility Survey.
Michael Brazier, head of global communications for the employee relocation company, articulated why this is such a huge problem, explaining that “Everyone communicates in different ways. If you just rely on a single form of communication to engage with staff, such as e-mail, you risk losing contact with many of your employees.”
If an e-mail is a reminder about an internal issue from the corporate office, perhaps it is not critical to the sender or recipient that every word be read. But when the message pertains to client projects, or requires a timely response, it’s easy to see why e-mail should not be the only medium of communication.
Technology innovations have given HR professionals and corporate managers many tools to help vary the avenues of communication and keep employees engaged, including social media, apps, a company intranet and video conferencing. “HR should embrace multiple forms of communication to achieve an extremely effective employee communication strategy,” said Brazier. He pointed out that “As a company, we have invested in apps and social communication, but we also recognize the benefit of how technology has enhanced more traditional forms of communication. For example, picking up a telephone and talking to someone is not innovative in itself but it is effective. Technology has simultaneously reduced the cost and enriched the experience through better conferencing and video calls, making it more accessible for everyone.”
Virtual Communication Enhances Engagement, Context
For those companies committed to a higher standard for global employee communication, innovative technology can offer a fully integrated virtual solution to keep employees connected. Within this new frontier of employee communication, a 3-D environment is created where employees can interact with one another via avatars or other simulated technology.
Ron Burns, CEO and founder of ProtonMedia, which specializes in virtual collaboration, described the problem faced by many of his company’s corporate clients: “It’s challenging to get people in different time zones to talk to one another so having the persistent environment they can rely on is very powerful.”
Collaboration environments complete with avatars may seem futuristic to some, but virtual communication expert Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a boutique consulting company focused on human behavior change, pointed out that “virtual engagement can be significantly more effective than face-to-face because the only way that virtual engagement works is with a lot of attentiveness to critical interpersonal details and attentiveness to managing these details. When you’re face to face, some of this happens by osmosis, but in virtual work, you have to be purposeful.”
So not only can technology help improve communication, but having to communicate virtually can help employees develop better communication and collaboration skills when they proactively put clear processes in place to do so—a truly virtuous cycle.
When it comes to creating synergy for teams of globally dispersed employees, virtual communication also helps create context. Everyone can relate to the experience of receiving a text message or e-mail in which the sender failed to convey in writing what their tone or body language would have conveyed in a face-to-face meeting. According to Burns, global employees who interface in a virtual environment can use their avatars to create an external sense of self. “You can see yourself in the [virtual] room, it causes cultural leveling; you use more thoughtful communication than you would in a teleconference,” where you cannot see other participants, he explained.
Build a Business Case
Beyond the benefit of improved communication, investing in technology solutions to engage your global workforce also makes sense from a business perspective. If tech tools can simulate the experience of teams working face to face, then the need for expensive business travel can be dramatically reduced. In building a business case for making technological improvements to corporate communication, it’s important to be mission-oriented and seek constant feedback.While it may be difficult to show that a virtual communication tool improves productivity by, for example, 25 percent, it should be fairly simple to compile data on utilization and survey employees on their impressions and needs. A high utilization rate and positive feedback from employees could be the only indicators needed to demonstrate the impact that new technology would have on the workforce. HR professionals should also make strategic decisions about how to implement communication technology in a way that’s intentional and methodical. If there are concerns about user adoption, the software can be piloted with a tech-savvy team first to make them champions of the change. Lastly, remember that technology will never replace the human touch. No matter how sophisticated communications mediums become, some employees will still prefer the old-fashioned methods.
Amy Gulati, SPHR, GPHR, is an HR business partner at Helios HR, based in Reston, Va.
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