Digital communication can be a minefield strewn with moments of misunderstanding. Opinions, requests, and nuance might be as clear as day when spoken in the room. But once dropped into the shopping trolley of digital communication, meaningful messages can lurch off course as if a wonky wheel shunted things sideways the moment you pressed send.
To avoid an epic mangling of meaning worthy of ‘Allo ‘Allo – the BBC sitcom in which English actors played French people grappling with English – it’s worth bearing in mind a few simple points.
Work involves contracts, commitments, tight budgets, and difficult deadlines. Misinterpretation can be costly. Messaging that is clear and direct though still warm and friendly is more likely to be understood by people from different backgrounds, generations, and levels of experience, so that everyone understands the same thing at the same time.
A shared sense of understanding is eased along by a little empathy. Empathy is easier in the room, where body language can smooth over any misjudged comments. However a smile, a warm use of open gestures, or a kind and thoughtful attitude are harder to manage with digital tech.
What is digital communication?
In a world of hybrid working, communication needs to be consistently effective wherever you or your colleagues happen to be. At home, we have to work harder to be sure we’re understood. Without face to face contact, there is a need for focus, patience, and a clear line of thought in all forms of digital communication – including emails, virtual calls, and messaging via internal systems and apps .
When we’re chatting face to face, we can nimbly weave our way through a meeting, stepping in and out of a lively conversation. In a virtual call, it’s harder to snatch your moment and launch into what you want to say. Then, just when you manage to do so, you might be interrupted by buffering. When the circle of doom eventually stops spinning, you try again – only to find you’re on mute, you’ve lost the moment, and everyone’s talking about cats.
The challenges of digital communication
The key challenges to digital communication usually relate to how your message is understood. Here are 10 reasons why things might go awry:
- Communicating without body language:
When we communicate in person, we rely on the full range of our emotions and intentions including body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. We can see how our point of view lands – and correct it if it veers off course. In digital communication, when these cues are absent it helps to be aware of the need for extra clarity.
- Missing context
Texts and emails might not include essential background information. They might assume the recipient knows the context, or they may contain unfamiliar abbreviations and jargon. Nothing should be taken for granted in written communication.
- Typos and missing words
Sometimes a well-written email can better express something we might struggle to say in the room. Other times, it feels like you’re hitting the keyboard while wearing boxing gloves. The ever-present risk of typos and missing words can be ironed out through a patient-re-read of what you want to send.
- Over-reliance on messaging
In a digital world, we tend to rely heavily on emails and texts. They might be convenient but they are distant, impersonal, and can come to replace more meaningful contact. An over-reliance on written text can stifle creativity and emotional expression. Some thoughts and feelings are better said aloud, accompanied by the helpful vocal inflections and empathy that short messages don’t always allow.
- Emotional detachment
Some argue that digital communication can lead to emotional detachment as it lacks the warmth and intimacy of face to face interaction. People may switch their camera off, hide behind their screen, or even send an email expressing things in a way they wouldn’t say in person. This can lead to a sense of disconnection. Poor use of nuance can result in misunderstanding, confusion, conflicts, and strained relationships.
- Information overload
A constant influx of messages, emails, notifications, and updates can be draining. Sorting through the sheer volume of digital communication can be overwhelming and lead to reduced productivity, increased stress, fatigue, and burnout. Important messages can be lost amid the noise. If a message needs to be sent, best to keep it light, bright, and short.
- Digital distractions
Emails and messaging that contain links to online content can create an additional drain on mental resources. Once you’ve decided the content is safe to open, you have to assess its value, make a note of useful information, and respond to what you’ve seen. Better to think twice before sending something that requires these tasks.
- Privacy and security concerns
Privacy breaches, hacking, and cyber threats pose significant risks. In a complex landscape of privacy settings, encryption, and cybersecurity measures, it’s important to be mindful about what you’re sending, and to whom. The simple email you plan to send may contain something explosive further down the chain of mails sent earlier.
Humour is human and susceptible to misjudgement. Best to restrict humour in work messages. Attempted jokes that fall short can seem insensitive, or worse. Once your message is preserved in black and white, denying it is difficult. Messaging at work should be warm and friendly, but professional and inoffensive.
- Etiquette and professionalism
The rules of etiquette in digital communication can be challenging, especially in professional settings. Navigating them takes care. Email tone, response times, and appropriate use of emojis can vary widely among individuals and cultures. Brevity is always a safe bet. Keep your tone warm and positive, say what you need to, then stop.
Benefits of digital communication
The deluge of digital information has altered the way we think. According to psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, our minds accommodate both fast and slow thinking. The latter is necessary when managing complexity such as negotiating a contract, but the former helps with simple things like driving. Be mindful that digital tech favours fast thinking, at the expense of more careful, considered thoughts.
People may feel compelled to check their devices, respond to messages, or stay connected at all hours, which can have negative effects on mental health and relationships. For example, there is a suspected link between high use of digital communication and shorter attention spans.
Nevertheless, digital communication has reshaped work and rewritten how we stay connected. For millions of people, it’s become a defining feature of 21st century life. It facilitates hybrid, develops relationships, and allows people to work for an organisation on the other side of the world. Training in virtual communicationhelps to ensure that you and your team understand each other consistently and effectively.
The relationship between traditional and digital communication
Communication is a central element of what it is to be human. We are social animals, we don’t do well alone. Enhancing our capability through stronger connectivity is a valuable skill. Building on this, digital communication has brought radical benefits to how we operate at work, particularly in speed, reach, and opportunity. But letting it intrude on the things that make us human may come at a cost.
At Working Voices, we advocate a sustainable way of working, beginning with communication. In practice, this requires a company culture committed to encouraging respect, trust, psychological safety, and a sense of belonging.
This approach to communication leads to stronger teamwork, higher productivity, and better retention. Our Sustainable Human themes and courses are strongly committed to the benefits offered by digital communication, data management and AI. These developments enhance performance at work, they are tools that support us. If this relationship slips into reverse however, and we prioritise these assets over people, then we risk losing sight of an authentic way of working and with it a little something of ourselves.