The Digitalization of Workplace Relationships

Elena Talavera Escribano, Tutela People

Tugela People HRIS Consultant Elena Talavera Escribano talks about how digitalization and technology are changing relationships within the workplace. We’ve all received those late-in-the-day messages from team members on a collaborative platform like Slack or HipChat that give us pause and uncertainty.

What did they mean by this? Are they mad at me? Should I fix this problem now or later? These kinds of questions run through your head and the lack of a real human connection makes you less likely to get the full picture and confront a situation that would be easier to manage in person.

On the flipside, something as simple as a facial expression can also change the course of an entire workplace conversation and go off topic, rather than sticking to the explicit message being communicated.

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Elena Talavera Escribano, an HRIS Consultant at Tugela People and PhD student in Cross-Cultural Leadership, uses her background in industrial-organizational psychology to understand how the digitalization of the workplace is affecting workers.

You’ve described your career objective as finding “the optimal balance between humanity and technology in order to favor an organization’s effectiveness.” What is the most important starting point in this process?

Talvera Escribano: There’s a lot of company digitalization going on right now. We’re adopting a lot of disruptive technologies and employees need to be at the level to operate them. It doesn’t matter how many changes we make to our processes and missions, I think we need to change the philosophy of employees and the organizational culture and climate so they feel prepared and can adapt to these new environments. If not, we can die as a company. Organizations that are not going to adapt to technologies and digitalization will disappear.

adopting and adapting to digitalization in the modern workplace

One of your primary areas of study has also been the “digitalization of human relationships.” How do you think this term applies to the modern workplace?

Talvera EscribanoThere’s a lot of different automation and processes within companies now. As a result, there’s been a switch from what companies expect from employees and the most valuable skills they need to have in order to adapt to these new environments. About 20-25 years ago, a lot jobs were done with hard skills. Those hard skills are now mostly done by machines and computers, therefore we are now focusing more on soft skills.

There have been a lot of different changes that are affecting which skills are needed to develop employee success. For instance, structures in an organization were very pyramedial because business was focused more on functions and more process-based. This has changed and there are more transversal organizations where there are more interdependencies between departments. We work in a more agile network that’s based more on projects. That means employees need to collaborate a lot more and we talk a lot about shared innovation and collective intelligence. Everything is now in the cloud, but our communication and innovation also needs to be shared.

The power of our leaders is not vertical as it was years before. Their power is more transversal and there’s a focus on making all employees feel like leaders. We want entrepreneurs within the company who speak up. We want them to be much more autonomous and this is very much influenced by the rise of virtual teams. Before, we had a leader in an office who gave us feedback. Nowadays, our direct manager might be in New York and we’re in Australia. Leaders also used to be more focused on direction whereas now they seem to be more focused on how we find harmony within the organization with a range of teams that work transversally.

virtual teams with workplace technology

To maximize building those workplace relationships, what do you think is the optimal way of working in an office space?

Talvera EscribanoWe don’t need to be afraid of openly communicating and sharing our creative ideas with others. I think it’s positive to lose that fear of sharing so we can collaborate with people who have different backgrounds. Not only professionally, but also culturally. An important social skill that we value a lot nowadays is cultural awareness and tolerance towards other people from other countries with different beliefs and morals.

Thinking about an open co-working space, it can even be a place to find emotional support. I work on a virtual team, for example, but I know I have a space to go to and talk to people who might be from other companies but they’re there physically. I think we need to take into consideration that only 7% of our communication is verbal. It’s a very low number. Communication itself is very explicit, but maybe we just miss having emotional support when someone is smiling at us or understands when we’re dealing with a bad work situation. Instead, we just send an emoticon.

We should also consider generational differences. From my point of view, young people are digital natives who grew up with these types of digital relationships so it may difficult for them to switch off. On the other hand, we have “digital immigrants” who may adapt new ways to relate in the workplace. We can benefit from this diversity and promote double-mentoring to learn from each other.

modern workstation technology and demographics in the office

Looking at the variety of different collaborative platforms built for the workplace, how has this kind of technology impacted face-to-face communication?

Talvera EscribanoThe first idea that comes to mind is intimacy. I think a lot of times when we communicate with people over one of these platforms, we overestimate the intimacy we have with them.

Virtual communication is much more direct and we’re just sending messages. The fact that we’re able to send an instant message at any time of day doesn’t mean we’ve created trust with another team member. One of the challenges is building trust through these virtual teams. At the end of the day, we lack that emotional relationship among virtual team members. Yeah I’m working with that person through a computer towards the same goal, but our relationship is based on achieving the goal. That’s it.

If you look at it from a different perspective, communication through these platforms can be more efficient than face-to-face in some cases. Since there’s less stimulus around, our messages get to our team members more directly. If someone comes to me and says we need to go over some points before a meeting, I might be able to read from their face that the person is sad. I might start asking them questions about how they feel and get away from the point of our conversation. Through these communication platforms, messages come directly and you don’t think about the person’s inclination.

communications and interpersonal relationships in modern workplace and technology

What is your opinion on Dunbar’s Number of 150? Do you subscribe to the idea that humans have an upper-level cap on the number of people they can maintain meaningful relationships with?

Talvera EscribanoThe model I usually use in my scientific research is the leader-member exchange theory (LMX). The basic idea behind this theory is that a leader cannot have a great relationship with all their team members because they have limited resources.

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I agree with Dunbar’s sentiment that we have limited resources, but I don’t know if 150 is the limit or not. This also depends on whether you have reciprocacy in the relationship or not. We also have more influencers now than ever before, not only on social media, but within organizations. These are internal influencers who have great relationships in the workplace and can motivate a lot of people. There are ways to reach more people and impact more people, but it depends on the quality.

Follow Elena on Twitter and LinkedIn and find out more about how Tugela People can help your organization with HR technology services at their website.

How do you think the digitalization of the workplace has impacted relationships among co-workers? Join the conversation and leave us a comment below.

Photos: Shutterstock, Jeff Sheldon