In my experience and in teaching a course on Virtual Presence (30 in total over a few years, between 200 and 250 participants), it has become abundantly clear that virtual communication (phone and video-based) is becomingly increasingly the norm. At the same time, people indicate that doing business over the phone or via a webcam is, in general, more difficult, especially when crossing cultural and language borders, as happens so often in today’s matrixed and multi-national teams.
We know from various studies that what we say (i.e. the words) is less important than how we say it (i.e. our vocal variety) and what we communicate, often subconsciously, with our body language and facial expressions.
Despite this shift in business practices and what we know about communication, few organisations have focused on the impact of these factors in virtual communication, and yet there is, I believe, a strategic and commercial advantage to making this a priority.
While significant progress has been made in providing the latest and greatest technologies for virtual communication, most technology is under-utilised. In addition, few people know how to increase their presence in a virtual medium. There are, I believe, a number of factors that have created a lack of focus and an alignment of training in this form of communication:
Even recognising that multi-tasking is commonplace today, especially with younger people, there is little evidence that multi-tasking improves productivity or quality. And in terms of building trusted relationships, delivering bad news and managing difficult conversations, there is no substitute for complete presence during an interaction, virtual or face-to-face.
There is no perfect substitute in the virtual world for a physical handshake, direct eye-contact and the ability for our brains to observe and interpret subtle shifts in facial and physical expression. But we can come remarkably close if we are thoughtful and intentional in raising the bar on virtual communication and if we leverage professionally the tools and techniques available to us.
If organisations are willing to put a stake in the ground and make a strategic commitment to becoming best in class in virtual communication, there are enormous benefits to be reaped in the quality of client interactions, engaged and productive employees, innovation and effective global and matrixed teams.
Virtual communication is not and does not need to be a second-class citizen