Business was once all about personal connections--people touching base over lunch and dinner, at a ball game and on the golf course. Relationships were cultivated with the goal of creating a more open and collaborative exchange of ideas and creating solutions to challenges.
Back in the day, though, doing face-to-face business with partners across the country or around the globe was a very expensive and time-consuming activity. Flight delays, jet lag and other travel-related obstacles just compounded the problem.
Nobody doubts the advantages of face-to-face interaction, but advances in technology have allowed us to put a far more human touch on long-distance communication.
In today's fast-paced, 24/7 global business environment, many businesspeople interact primarily through technology, which bridges time zones and permits the rapid exchange of real-time information. Digital communication can be abrupt at times, especially when those messages are delivered through emails and text. Instead of telephone conversations that begin with "How's the family?," people tap out less personal email messages and texts that get right to the point--the point being business.
While the "human touch" may suffer at times in the digital age, there is no questioning the many positives that doing business digitally brings.
Time zones have been flattened to allow people to communicate via online conferencing and video platforms like Skype and FaceTime. Businesses are using sophisticated, digitally-enabled boardrooms to bring everyone into the room. Social media marketing is helping target potential buyers of products and services at much less cost, creating relationships that can guide further business dealings down the line.
Certainly, our work lives are vastly more efficient because of digital. Digital versus human isn't an either or. People can have their cake and eat it too--leveraging digital tools in their work while also maintaining more personal relationship building.
"Face-to-face business dealings connect people in ways that technology can never replace," says human resources consultant Josh Bersin, founder and principal at Bersin by Deloitte, at Deloitte Consulting. "In my many experiences visiting companies and meeting with their employees, people are just as interested in the personal connection as they were when I was starting out in the 1980s. They go to dinner and schmooze just like earlier generations of workers did."
And when such intimate business encounters are not possible, digital offers the means to nurture the relationship in ways that did not exist a generation ago. "Skype is a great alternative to simply talking with someone over the phone," says Romy Gelles, Ph.D., an industrial and organizational psychologist and principal at Global Training Solutions Inc.
Patrick Renna, chief financial officer of Wahlburgers, a Boston-based restaurant chain, shares this perspective: "Digitization has made us all more productive, allowing us to get a lot of work done in real-time without having to fly or drive somewhere."
The bottom line is that digital is not a replacement for the human connection. Rather, it is an adjunct. "You can have both personal dealings and those made possible by digital tools," says Renna. "For instance, when it comes to sealing a business deal, I prefer a face-to-face meeting. "Thereafter, I like to Skype with the person, chat on the phone and email, depending on the subject matter."
Bersin agrees that all forms of interaction have a place in the modern workspace. On a recent trip to Deloitte's office in India, he was impressed by how close employees were. "I soon learned why," Bersin says. "It was common for everyone to attend after-work parties together--volleyball games, ping-pong tournaments. I saw them having a great time together. Heck, I had a great time, too. It helped me to get to know them more deeply, and them me."
Such behaviors do not have to be confined to office employees. A recent report by Amway indicates that when conversation flows between buyer and seller, the credibility and trust established can form the foundation of an ongoing business relationship. The study notes that 83 percent of consumers value the development of a relationship before closing a sale.
The synergies between technology and human interaction did not begin with the digital age. After Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call in 1876, he wrote his father a letter, commenting about a future "when friends converse with each other without leaving home."
One hundred and forty years later, it is clear: the secret to life--both personal and professional--is to find ways of marrying the best of humanity and technology to build a better world.