Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Reconciling the Need for Face-to-Face Communication with Lack of Desire to Return

As of the end of June, only 4% of employees want to return to their workplaces full time. That represents an incredible drop from 30% saying so in April. That’s according to a large set of data collected and analyzed by Perceptyx.

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While the world adjusts to remote work, there are some major concerns about what impact that will be on things like communication. Another study by Xerox shows that 95% of employees believe that in-person communication is critical for both personal development and assessing talent.

How do we reconcile these seemingly opposed trends?

The Value of In-Person Communication

While communication is hardly the only thing that will suffer, as the majority of workers remain working from home, it is a critical aspect that influences virtually all other areas of work.

Just how much more effective face-to-face communication is has been studied extensively. One study by the University of California found that effective communication and successful interpretation of that communication rely heavily on the physical distance between parties. In other words, the closer you are to those that you engage in conversation, the more effective that communication is.

Based on this principle, you might be able to imagine a hierarchy of communication methods where the distance between talking parties gets directly or metaphorically greater. I would rank it from most effective to least:

  1. In-person communication. This has the highest likelihood of action being taken based on the conversation while also supporting a highly successful transmission of information between parties. The advantages of this communication rely on not only being able to hear each other but also seeing body language, facial expressions, and picking up on complex intonations that are present in the sound of someone’s voice.
  2. Video chat. Video chat does preserve a lot of the features of in-person communication. You can still see each other’s faces and hear what they have to say at the same time.

    Facial expressions add powerful contours to communication. What can be missing, however, are large amounts of body language. With many video chats focusing only on the face of participants, some hand gestures, posture, and other critical body language cues are absent or partially occluded.

    Additionally, degradation and compression of audio quality can make subtle vocal qualities more difficult to notice. For example, a buffering screen might add too much pause after a statement made by a colleague, adding undue importance to their last words.
  3. Voice chat. When relying on voice chat alone, all facial expressions and body language drop out of everyone’s ability to interpret communications. The same degradation in audio quality can also further obscure the transmission of important vocal contours that add detail and context to a conversation.
  4. E-mail. While phone calls at least preserve some power of vocal communications, the cold hard words from an e-mail strip them out entirely. Everyone experiences this kind of communication very differently, often being forced to apply a lot of interpretation towards what they are reading without any physical or vocal context.
  5. Text chats and messaging. While text chats and messaging apps often get compared to e-mails, they can be even less effective than e-mails in transmitting messages. The conversation does indeed have a flow that is difficult to achieve in e-mails, but each message is relatively short.

    Brevity is the name of the game with this form of communication, and that can lead to an even slimmer context when it comes to interpreting, understanding, and taking action on communications.

What Can Be Done?

When you are considering how your organization communicates in the absence of in-person meetings and discussions, the above list should begin to provide answers. Video chat preserves the most meaning and offers the highest possibility for the successful transmission of information and interpretation of that information.

Indeed, some have found some unique problems with video chatting, such as the invasion into our homes and the fact that it is somewhat difficult to adjust to the super closeups of everyone’s faces.  These aren’t a feature of in-person communication, but they can be mitigated.

Making sure everyone that is remote has at least the option to use video chatting to conduct his or her work helps ensure that the best method of communication possible is available. However, video chat may not be relied upon alone.

Rely on video whenever possible, but don’t sacrifice the ability to communicate for the desire to have the most effective communications. Workers on a job site or in the field may not be able to communicate this way; so encouraging them to use other methods can ensure that information keeps flowing.


Without the ability to stop by someone’s desk, or catch them in the hallway, it can be easy for the amount of time between regular communications to grow longer. Building a structured system of check-in is critical to keeping communication effectively alive during and beyond the pandemic.

Set a time every week for team members to collaborate or catch up, and even if they have nothing to report, you’ll have provided a structured and useful place for them to do so.

Final Thoughts

While some may return to the office, many will not for some time and possibly never. Even when organizations do have people come back to the workplace, it will often be in a reduced capacity, alternating shifts, and/or skeleton crews.

That means that the possibility of in-person communication will continue to suffer. Now is the time to examine what has been working as your organization adapts to a different world, discard what doesn’t work, and focus on what does.