When Stevie Wonder first sang “I just called to say I love you,” no one wondered whether he would have been better off tweeting his message instead of picking up the phone. Not so today.
Recently, in my Wharton MBA course on leadership from the point of view of the whole person, we grappled with the challenge of how to choose among the various media options available today for connecting with important people in all the different parts of your life. We came up with 17 different media currently in use for interpersonal contact, including face-to-face (verbal and non-verbal), phone, email, snail mail, text and video messaging, blogs, podcasts, online forums, even music sharing and online gaming, among others. Quite a few of these did not even exist ten years ago, reminding us that we are all still very much in learning mode when it comes to the social and psychological principles and methods we need to take advantage of the incredibly powerful, and sometimes bewildering, array of choices we have.
Digital technology has added both relief and stress to our lives. These tools can make it easier to move rapidly from one part of life to another and give rapid access to the people who need you. And you can broadcast with them, making communication extremely efficient. Yet instead of realizing all the potential benefits, most people find themselves trapped by the demands imposed by the enormous amount of information surrounding them every hour of every day. A thought experiment: If I told you right now that you had to give up all your digital devices for the next day, how would you feel? Relieved? Terrified? We’ve become enormously dependent on these tools, and yet we’ve not spent nearly enough time thinking about how best to use them so that we gain the benefits while keeping them from reducing the quality of our lives.
People complain that using new technologies reduces social interaction and sense of community while others rant about being expected to be available for work 24/7 with zero response-time to urgent messages. While the promise of new media is freedom, choice, and control, the reality for most is crippling overload. On the employer side, many bosses wonder whether people are really working when they are connecting virtually. They also worry about how to foster team spirit when the “team” is invisible. Finally, when performance is measured the old-fashioned way (by time spent in an office) and not on the basis of results (no matter where and when they are produced), digital communications can seem to undermine productivity.
But what if you could use the media available to you to build trust and gain greater flexibility? And what if you could do this without being enslaved and constantly bombarded by your Blackberry, iPhone, laptop, or whatever? You’d feel more whole, better able to integrate the diverse pieces of the social puzzle in your life.
You can learn to use new media to shift time and place in ways that work for all your key stakeholders, including yourself. But the intelligent use of the various media we now have isn’t just a matter of doing more digital. Rather, it’s a matter of more consciously allocating your use of different modes of communication: for example, making face-to-face communication a priority for those stakeholders with whom it’s needed, while using digital less. It all depends on what’s going to work best for you and for them.
Studying your forms of interaction will help you generate ideas for how you might capitalize on the benefits of each communication mode (e.g., face-to-face is best when trust is on the line) while minimizing the liabilities (e.g., emails can miss nuances better conveyed on the phone or in person). This might mean shifting to more in-person time with certain stakeholders (such as your children or clients) and less with others (such as with your boss or the people who report to you) while taking advantage of the flexibility of virtual media as a means of staying connected with others.
Here’s one way to stimulate creative thinking about exploiting various forms of communication. Think about the media you use to communicate with the five most important people or groups at work, at home, and in your community. For each of these stakeholders, estimate the percentage of your interaction time that is conducted through each of the following forms of communication: face-to-face (F2F), virtual synchronous (shifting place but not time, such as phone, IM, and videoconferencing), and virtual asynchronous (shifting both time and place, such as voicemail and email) communication. For example, you might spend 50% in F2F with your boss, 20% with her on the phone, and 30% by email and voicemail. After you do this analysis, look for patterns. Consider how using different forms of communication affects your capacity to achieve your goals in each part of your life and to align them better by asking these questions:
- What opportunities are there for you to use different forms of communication more effectively?
- Are there stakeholders with whom you should be devoting more time F2F and others less?
- With whom would it be better to use virtual more regularly?
The real value in this analysis is to become more aware of media preferences (yours and theirs) and to learn more about how you can be more effective in meeting expectations by using a given medium. Look for opportunities to explain to your people why you have a preference for one medium over another for certain kinds of communications. For example, if you prefer email, and can justify it as the option of choice to a friend, your father, or a co-worker, that conversation about your preferences will probably make the entire process of communicating go more smoothly. The technology choice should be based on a mutual understanding about why, how, and when you’re going to communicate.
Staying mindful of the preferences others have means looking for chances to talk about when, where, and how you use different media to stay connected, including when you’re available and when you’re not. You might, for instance, discuss what it would be like to shut off the digital information stream for a specific period — even for just an hour or two — to focus your attention entirely on one thing.
With so many options, there are plenty of opportunities for you to experiment, even just for a week or so, with how you use media. Try something different, with the deliberate goal of performing more effectively in all the different parts of your life, and see what happens.