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Don't Underestimate the Power of Face Time

We’re just now starting to see the drawbacks of how technology is affecting our interactions in the real, physical world

Mark Lanfear

The modern workplace is filled with modern technologies that are continually making our jobs easier and our actions more efficient. Especially in science labs, you could argue that this technological impact started long before any other industry, when lab functions became automated. This automation transformed the sciences, leading to countless discoveries and outcomes that might not have been possible in the manual age.

But as with any type of advancement, we’re just now starting to see the drawbacks of how technology is affecting our interactions in the real, physical world. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this realization is the recent development of the first inpatient treatment program for “Internet addiction” at a Pennsylvania hospital. A less dramatic, more pervasive example is all around us in the workplace every day, where emails and text messages have become the preferred method of communication.

Additionally, over the past few decades, as the idea of “empowering” professionals of all levels has gained favor, managers have been increasingly warned about being too hands-on. “Micromanagement” has become a bad word, conjuring up visions of our scientists being asked to account for every paper clip, test tube, and restroom break. As a result, corporations have aimed to hire good people and then leave them alone to do their best work.

But has leaving these good employees “alone” caused unintended consequences such as fostering loneliness, disassociation from the team, and a lack of direction? In a lab or clinical setting, with the complex processes and protocols we deal with, I just don’t tend to believe that an email will do the job.

Of course, communication by electronic means doesn’t always have to be bad. Sometimes a quick email between colleagues about a process or a specific task at hand can be a good thing. But when it comes to the relationship between a manager and a worker, defaulting to a “hands-off ” method of communicating can often have the opposite effect—it can start to erode a partnership that is meant to be positive and fulfilling for both parties.

Researchers are already examining this phenomenon. Bruce Tulgan, author of The Under-Management Epidemic, writes that most managers provide too little feedback too inconsistently. This is causing some organizations to have lower productivity and a disappointing return on investment.

His research further found that only 10 percent of managers use what he calls a highly engaged approach: providing all direct reports with feedback at least once a week. Tulgan notes that this type of feedback should involve clear statements of performance requirements, priorities, goals, and deadlines; frequent documentation of work performance; and clear feedback with guidance for improvement. Only 35 percent provide this type of feedback annually.

This is why now, more than ever, managers must learn to strike a delicate balance between fostering independent thinking and being actively engaged with their employees when appropriate.

There are many reasons why this “delicate” balance is so important. Of course, countless workplace surveys today are showing that employees want to be independent. They want to have the ability to direct their own careers. They want to have flexibility and freedom. And research does indeed show that, when presented with these types of opportunities on the job, employees are empowered to do their best work.

But for all this freedom that employees want, surveys have also indicated that they want direction and engagement from their superiors.

In a recent meeting, a top executive at my company told me he was going to start walking the floors of the building like he used to do. He’s a man who worked his way up, held several roles, and sat on many different floors.

But now, sitting where he does, he feels a little disconnected from the business he loves and the people he depends on. I’m inspired by his realization and new redirection. His reevaluation of the basics that have made this and other companies great speaks volumes to the importance of the “human factor” being woven into all pursuits in life.

The big trick, of course, is learning how to use technology and advancement to “create” those face-to-face interactions that we all crave—and need. What types of efficiencies can be used, for example, so that there is time for a manager to take an employee to lunch rather than writing an email to congratulate him or her on 30 successful years with the company?

There are some tried and true tricks I use to get this job done, and veteran and new managers alike can adapt them to their own situations. For example, listen to what employees have to say about themselves and their work, giving them the space to be expressive. When they’re not performing to expectations, act quickly with feedback to set functional expectations. Trust the high performers, and try to focus your energies on those who may be struggling.

Furthermore, while trying to stay tuned in without suffocation, know that you’ll inevitably have to help employees navigate the occasional pitfalls. Being too hands off in these situations could actually be a detriment to the entire team. Remember, you’re there to push people to be the best they can be. Managers aren’t hired to be loved, but to produce results.

Management has certainly changed to leadership, in my view. But the basics will never fail you. Use them to your advantage to create the right balance between technology and truly being present for the people you work with. We are all human in the end.