The importance of face to face communication…

As a human who has worked from home for the past 5 years, I have become obsessed with communication and productivity. I have experimented with tools, processes, structures to increase my personal productivity and ensure successful communication. There are times when things get lost in translation. Where emails, text messages or conference calls don’t quite nail the message and things fall through the cracks. There are times when it all feels like it isn’t working or it is just too hard. As a working Mum my motivation to hack my productivity is so I can spend more time with my adorable offspring. We know that communication is key but spending hours on the phone or email is not the answer. So productive communication is key. Making it count. Making what you say, how you say it and where you say it the right way at the right time. Making sure we nail what needs to be said to get the right outcomes and build relationships is key.
Recently neuroscientists are having a field day with advances in technology enabling them to peer inside the minds of humans in a non invasive way to satisfy curiosity at the heart of questions around behaviour, communication, relationships and more. A recent study looking at neural synchronisation during face to face communication sought to discover the neural difference between face-to-face communication and other types of communication by simultaneously measuring two brains using a hyperscanning approach. Although the human brain may have evolutionarily adapted to face-to-face communication, other modes of communication, e.g., telephone and e-mail, increasingly dominate our modern daily life… so is face to face communication any better in quality than other forms of communication? They designed an experiment to measure the quality of neural synchronisation (key for successful communication) including face to face communication, face to face monologue (no behavioural synchronisation or interaction), back to back communication and back to back monologue.
The results showed a significant increase in the neural synchronisation in the left inferior frontal cortex during a face-to-face dialog between partners but none during a back-to-back dialog, a face-to-face monologue, or a back-to-back monologue. Moreover, the neural synchronisation between partners during the face-to-face dialog resulted primarily from the direct interactions between the partners, including multimodal sensory information integration and turn-taking behaviour. The communicating behaviour during the face-to-face dialog could be predicted accurately based on the neural synchronisation level. These results suggest that face-to-face communication, particularly dialog, has special neural features that other types of communication do not have and that the neural synchronisation between partners may underlie successful face-to-face communication.*
Basically – when humans get together face to face, take turns, mimic and mirror each others body language, the level of neural synchronisation goes a little bit yay, your brains have a party and successful communication results.\
Ok, so face to face communication is king. So what does this mean for remote workers? Work from home peeps? Interstate teams? The reality is that we need to come together to make magic happen. We all know this. When we take time to rate the quality of our interactions and the quality of work we produce, the best work is produced when we have good neural synchronicity – when we are on the same ‘wave length’ – yep, actual neural oscillations, same brain waves. We can create this sort of harmony by spending time face to face speaking to one another and setting goals and plans. So we know we need to come together, we know we need face to face communication for it to all work well – but how often? Do we need to see each other every day or is there a more productive and harmonious way for us to hack productive communication whilst still enjoying all the perks of working remotely or from home?
Delivering complex work from my home office over the past few years allowed me to experiment with my own personal productive communication and I created a sort of scale for myself to help decide which interactions require what type of communication (how/where/what tools). Here is my rule book:
Project kick offs, milestones and post implementation reviews should happen face to face.

Really, really good news and really bad news should happen face to face – this builds trust.

New relationships benefit from face to face communication upfront. Try and meet new suppliers, partners, colleagues ASAP so you can get your neural synchronisation happening…

Established relationships benefit from face to face communication every 4-8 weeks. Why 4-8 weeks? In modern days we plan, deliver and live month to month, if we can ensure we have a cycle in place for face to face interactions, we seem to hack the synchronitic flow. (synchronitic isn’t a word yet but it totally should be).

Ensure when you do get together you have an agenda that leaves room for turn taking and lots of body language. For me interpretive dance, theatre sports and singing are all a good way to hype this up and create some magical behavioural synchronisation.

Be mindful of not relying too much on email/text/technology – mix it up by trying new forms of communication like short video’s to each other through instagram or a quick FaceTime call to eye-ball team members between face to face catch ups.

When you’re working from home, ensure you still engage in face to face time with others (even if at the coffee shop or at the park with a stranger), engaging in high quality behavioural synchronisation and successful communication even for fun keeps you in a happy and productive state of mind!

Take notes, replay via email or text to ensure things have been captured.

Use face to face as a time to play, build the relationship and get along – follow up with emails to confirm key outputs and deliverables.

The other interesting thing to note here was what happened in the brains of the listener’s who were listening to a monologue (face to face or back to back), it appears that turn taking and body language are key, this is behavioural synchronisation rather than just face to face listening and is vital for successful quality communication, so if you’re planning on getting together, making sure the face to face catch ups are interactive and allow time for turn taking. This has interesting applications for learning, leadership, updates, town halls and more – if we want to ensure all communications are high quality and successful, then we should as a guide ensure the participants have an opportunity to meet face to face, take turns and hack behavioural synchronisation through body language also.
While technology is a wonderful tool to facilitate communication, there is little evidence to suggest that it makes communication more successful. We know that using email and powerpoint and other tools can help us capture, create a sense of shared understanding and a paper trail, but nothing beats a really good 1:1 conversation. I think it is important to leverage technology to enhance communication but I think the key is to remember that face to face is always going to land everyone on the same wave length fastest and we are wired for connection after all.
*Source – Jing Jiang, Bohan Dai, Danling Peng, Chaozhe Zhu, Li Liu and Chunming LuJournal of Neuroscience 7 November 2012, 32 (45) 16064-16069; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2926-12.2012

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