I am the Director of Online Education for Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC. I say “in” North Carolina, but in reality I live in Mississippi. I am the University’s first full-time distance employee. When I accepted the position, there was some concern about whether the functions of a departmental director could really be performed at a distance. I’ve only been at it since August, so I guess that remains to be seen, but so far so good.
Having served as a missionary for 21 years in Uruguay and Argentina, I knew that it could be done. Our main office was in Ohio. I remember the days when our primary communication back to the states was via Ham radio. Back then, the Federal Government had such strict control over Ham radio operators, that you weren’t allowed to talk about anything having to do with business. If you did, the operator could lose his license. Thank God for the Internet and for such services as Skype and Google Hangout. Today expats not only talk with their children and grandchildren back home; they can see them!
The advent of Social Media, the smart phone, and all the other technologies that we have today to communicate electronically, has sparked an ongoing debate about the role of face-to-face communication in today’s world. I have even heard people predict the total elimination of the need for physical contact.
While I am an avid fan of technology and proponent of the effectiveness of working at a distance, I must say that such a reaction is completely false. The need for face-to-face, physical, contact will never become obsolete. The reason this is true is that we all communicate not just through literal text or even through visual images on a screen, but through a variety of non-verbal channels that cannot be conveyed electronically (no, not even by using emoticons).
Just last week, I travelled (physically) to NC and spent a week meeting with the people with whom I had been interacting electronically for the past several months. This experience gave me several insights into the value and role of face-to-face communication. Here is what I learned:
- When people need reassurance or just to know that you are concerned about them as persons, don’t send them an email to express that. They need to see your eyes, to hear your voice, to see your posture, all of which send a message more powerful than the words you speak.
- When you work at a distance and then have the opportunity to be at the central office physically, plan ahead. Set up appointments with key people so that you can make the optimal use of your time. Plan to use the time for the kinds of meetings that you cannot conduct effectively at a distance.
- Resist the temptation to only talk about work. Use this opportunity to connect with people at the spiritual level. Don’t just interact from the head; interact from the soul.
- Be cognizant of the messages you are sending to people through your physical presence. Dress accordingly, fully aware of the message you are sending. Experts call this impression management. The idea is not to present a false image, but rather to avoid a false image through carelessness.
- Use the opportunity that face-to-face encounter presents to work on complex problems. Not that you cannot solve such problems through electronic communication; it just takes longer.
- Be aware not only of your own non-verbal communication but also of the non-verbal communication of others. Again, don’t live in your head. Look around you; notice things. What are people communicating through their gestures, their facial expressions, their sudden looking away as you broach a subject, their leaning forward and lowering of their voice when they share a piece of information? I know these things are sometimes difficult to interpret, but they can also be cracks through which you can begin to see another level of meaning shining through.
These are the lessons I have learned. What have you learned about the role of physical face-to-face communication in a world of electronic communication? I would love to hear your insights.