By Sean Carey
A new poll of 600 UK office workers reports that just over two thirds now prefer e-mails and phone calls to face-to-face meetings, even when colleagues are in the same building. A big part of the problem, it seems, is that many people have now become so reliant on digital messaging that they are less confident about encountering people in real time and space.
Another part is that avoiding meetings at the office means that the boss has less chance of dumping extra work on subordinates. Add to this that only around a third of people are convinced that a face-to-face meeting is the quickest and most efficient way of solving problems, and it’s evident that the vast majority of employees will only gather round the conference table if they are forced into it.
But I think the new research has missed something important – the lengths to which many people will go to in order to avoid situations which they perceive might lead to shame and embarrassment. Even before the digital era came upon us, many employees, especially those in the middle and lower end of the social hierarchy, found meetings an ordeal, especially if tensions between different management factions were in play. As sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in a seminal paper, first published in 1956, the signs of embarrassment, where the social, psychological and physiological come together, can be distressing:
“An individual may recognise extreme embarrassment in others and even in himself by the objective signs of emotional disturbance: blushing, fumbling, stuttering, an unusually low-or high-pitched voice, quavering speech or breaking of the voice, sweating, blanching, blinking, tremor of the hand, hesitating or vacillating movement, absent-mindedness and malapropisms… There are also symptoms of a subjective kind: constriction of the diaphragm, a feeling of wobbliness, consciousness of strained and unnatural gestures, a dazed sensation, dryness of the mouth, and tenseness of the muscles. In cases of mild discomfiture these visible and invisible flusterings occur but in less susceptible form.”
The Canadian-born social scientist went on to say that any obvious sign of discomfiture in mainstream Western corporate culture is often interpreted as evidence of “weakness, inferiority, low status, moral guilt, defeat, and other unenviable attributes”.
That’s quite a list. Things haven’t changed very much in the years since those words were crafted. So, it looks highly likely that the increasing digitalisation under way in the economy means that many employees will be able to find new ways to avoid embarrassing situations in the workplace. Under normal circumstances it would be expected that at least some in the middle and lower ranks would end up as tomorrow’s leaders, having acquired a range of skills, including working out how to negotiate tricky and awkward situations to their advantage. Could it be that a whole range of soft, face-to-face interactive skills are slowly being lost amongst a significant segment of the workforce as the focus shifts from looking at and interpreting people’s voices, faces and gestures to staring at screens and deciphering text? Almost certainly.
Does it matter? I think so. It will have an impact on the prospects of those small and medium-sized companies in the UK, which are keen to seek out fresh markets in the world’s new growth economies. Of course, some contacts overseas will be established by digital means, but for the most part it will involve representatives of British companies travelling abroad, meeting their foreign counterparts and pressing the flesh.
It’s pretty obvious that people who find it difficult to speak face-to-face with others of the same or similar background are not best equipped to do deals with business leaders in countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the social and cultural rules of interaction are often significantly different to those found in increasingly digitised workplaces in the UK.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton
* Published in print edition on 5 October 2012