“The urge to connect with people runs deep these days,” says former Microsoft chief learning officer Chris Pirie, now founder and chief executive officer of the Learning Futures Group.

So many of us are feeling that way due to our isolated work environments: day after day in the same room, feeling the same fatigue in back-to-back Zoom meetings. Who hasn’t longed to ditch a 60-minute call and step down the hall to ask a real person a quick question and experience that connective communication?

Neuroscience explains these urges. Satisfying social interactions release a flood of energizing dopamine, while the absence or failure of that connection starves the brain and thwarts our motivation.

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

In a virtual work environment, “connective communication is more important than ever,” says Pirie. “But it’s also harder than ever. We’re all communicating through these digital meeting rooms.”

Even if industry-leading Zoom takes the brunt of the blame, other platforms deserve it, too. According to Pirie, “They all lay an extra cognitive load on workers.” Teleconferencing can mask subtle visual and auditory cues, so the normal face-to-face feedback loop is frayed, if not shredded.

“It’s hard to know when to talk,” he says. “You get this annoying hesitation. Time is skewed. The audio gets out of synch with the video. You feel exhausted at the end of a meeting, far more so than after a full day of face-to-face meetings.”

And the problem isn’t going anywhere, says corporate learning analyst Josh Bersin: “Almost every chief human resource Officer I speak with tells me that 20-30% of their ‘work at home’ staff will probably stay in that configuration.”

Learning Together, While Apart

Amid the pandemic, Bersin finds that despite the technological barriers, “everyone wants frequent two-way communication” — all-hands calls, CEO emails and other open communication — “and they want to give input.”

When asked how line leaders and human resources (HR) professionals can continue to support connective communication, learning and development in a virtual workplace, Pirie outlined three “premises” that reliably guide effective communication when technology intervenes:

Premise 1: Everyone Needs a Communication Brush-up

At a time when there is a lot of anxiety and fatigue, says Pirie, “it’s a really good idea to sharpen up your communication skills.” Almost everyone is in some state of change, with added pressures and worn nerves. One wrong word, and you can damage a relationship that commonly is resilient.

“Going back to the basics of effective communication is a good thing,” says Pirie. “It makes sense for everybody to tune up their skills at this time.” You can start with simple yet impactful skills, such as:

    • Listen non-judgmentally with a great degree of empathy.
    • Focus on what the other person cares about before you speak genuinely about your own interests.
    • Align with, and then speak authentically in response to, the concerns and emotions of others.

Premise 2: Diversity and Inclusion Serve Both Well-being and Performance

“We want everybody to feel comfortable in the new medium,” says Pirie. We know, of course, that the impact of communication skills is strong for the individual and exponentially stronger when everyone’s on the same page.

“We want everybody’s voice heard,” he says. “The-smartest-person-in the-room mindset got Microsoft into a lot of trouble. We knew best. We knew that the PC was the answer to every problem. And that’s why we didn’t build a smartphone.”

Premise 3: You Can Over-communicate, but You Can’t Over-connect

A deluge of information is even less welcome in a workplace with little or no face-to-face contact. Pirie says, “An economy of communication is required in this situation.”

Still, vital information needs to reach anyone deeply affected, and people need frequent opportunities to contribute. Equally important, because isolated workers crave two-way connection with peers and leaders, it’s vital for everyone to ask thoughtful questions and truly listen to replies.

Time for a Different Tune

Musicians advise that if you can’t get an annoying tune out of your head, play it backward. In a similar way, you may need to upend your communication strategy. To leave face-to-face behind and make the most of your digital meeting room:

    • Acquaint everyone with the same set of communication skills and tools. That way, leaders and team members hold each other accountable for listening to each other and communicating clearly, memorably and economically.
    • Involve everyone in decisions that impact their work and working conditions. That way, you help gain support for, or at least understanding of, ultimate decisions and minimize the outsized impact of “the smartest person in the room.”
    • Connect frequently, but tailor communication to the vital needs of individuals and groups. That way, you avoid both needless anxiety and the worst impact of cognitive overload inherent in every online platform available today.

What parting advice might Chris Pirie share with us? How about this message, from someone who helped shape learning in one of the world’s most successful software companies: “I don’t think the solution means building software. I think it means using the communication tools already out there and finding really creative ways to use them to engage people.”

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