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Is Face-to-Face Communication Always Best? - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #813

Is Face-to-Face Communication Always Best?

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KEY CONCEPT

While face-to-face communication is generally more effective than other methods of communication, a wide variety of factors—from the seriousness of the issue to career considerations to affinity among colleagues—can positively or negatively influence this effectiveness. 


IDEA SUMMARY

Effective communication among members of a team or organization is key to the success of a group. Fast and direct face-to-face communication would appear to be the ideal method of communication. A study based on police emergency calls, however, reveals the complexities of communication—and why choosing the best modes of communication may not be as simple as leaders may think.

The study is based on a unique situation involving emergency calls made to the police of Manchester, England. A call handler receives the call and enters the information into a computer. A radio operator reads the information and dispatches officers to the scene. In some cases, the handler and operator can communicate face-to-face about the incident, depending on where a call is received. (A computer queue system allocates a call to the next available handler throughout the city, who may or may not be in the same room as the neighbourhood dispatcher.)

Researchers reviewed nearly one million emergency calls made to the police over a two-year period. One in four of the calls included face-to-face discussions between handler and operator. The researchers studied police response time to assess the effectiveness of each communication between handler and operator. A multitude of other factors—the length of the working relationship between handlers and operators, for example, or the volume of calls at the time of the communication—was folded into the analysis. 

The result is a multi-faceted portrait of face-to-face communication, including how it works, when it works well, and when it doesn’t. This portrait begins with two key points:

  • Face-to-face communication improves the flow of information.  In general, the police response time was faster.
  • Face-to-face communication comes at a cost. Handlers must signal the system when unavailable to take an emergency call. A handler’s efficiency is measured by availability for emergencies. The data showed that greater face-to-face communication reduced the handler’s efficiency. 

This data proves the trade-off of workplace communication: when colleagues help other colleagues, they sacrifice their own efficiency to increase the efficiency of those they help. This ‘trade-off’ influences the positive impact of face-to-face communication: to improve their own efficiency, helpers might choose to sacrifice less of their time to interactions with others. The research highlights examples of this choice. During the month before a performance review, for example, call handlers chose to keep face-to-face communications as short as possible to improve their record of availability. When call handlers were very busy, they again shortened face-to-face communications, again reducing the positive impact of such communications. 

In contrast, the researchers found a number of factors that reinforced or increased the positive impact of Face-to-Face calls, including:

  • The operator and handler had been working together a long time
  • The operator and handler were of the same age and/or gender
  • The operator was naturally slow
  • The operator was busy
  • The handler was not busy

‘Social welfare’, or the benefit of the communication to the general population, also played a role on the positive impact of face-to-face communication. When the threat to social welfare was high—for example, an emergency call involving an assault in progress as opposed to the report of a burglary—the positive impact of face-to-face communication was high. Handlers internalized the social welfare and responded accordingly.


BUSINESS APPLICATION

The results of this study cannot be indiscriminately applied to all industries or organizations. For example, the study did not consider whether phone or Zoom calls might have similar results as face-to-face communication. 

Nevertheless, the study offers important insights on face-to-face communication for leaders seeking to improve communication channels and methods in their organisations:

  1. Face-to-face communication is a trade-off, requiring the helper to sacrifice his or her own efficiency to benefit others. 
  2. To encourage face-to-face engagement, leaders should thus recognize and reward this sacrifice. Is communication a performance review item in your company? 
  3. Other factors that can reduce or increase the motivation to communicate, as described above, should also be taken into account. Encourage the collegiality of colleagues, for example, and eliminate career path motivators that inhibit communication.
  4. Social welfare considerations can significantly influence the motivation of individuals to engage in face-to-face communication. Highlight the impact of face-to-face communication on social welfare to counteract the sacrifice involved.
  5. Emergencies are emergencies in any industry. The positive impact of face-to-face communication in such situations indicates that creating a face-to-face or quasi-face-to-face emergency channel for your company would be worth the investment.

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FURTHER READING

  Diego Battiston’s profile at London School of Economics
  Jordi Blanes I Vidal’s profile at London School of Economics
  Tom Kirchmaier profile at London School of Economics

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