We rely on email and social media more and more to communicate, but is it still important to develop strong face-to-face networking skills? 

It’s hard to imagine a working day without some form of electronic communication. Even in offices that have enforced “no email” days in a bid to free staff from the burden of responding to every message they receive, you can bet that colleagues are messaging each other on Facebook or a corporate networking tool such as Yammer, or “poking” one another on their smart phones.

But is our reliance on technology to communicate causing us to lose our interpersonal or “soft” skills? This is the question posed by recruitment company Hays in its journal this month. Barney Ely, director of Hays Human Resources, believes technology has had a real impact on how staff network both with their colleagues and outside the workplace.

“The technology boom has opened up many networks online and created real, focused, commercial opportunities. One merit of making connections online is the opportunity to tap into a vast international knowledge base,” he says, pointing to developments such as crowdsourcing sites and user communities, where experts in a field can share and test out new ideas.

But, Ely also argues that it is a high-risk strategy for employees to neglect face-to-face connections, and that employers should place more focus on ensuring staff learn how to network more effectively both online and in person: “Staff who are isolated by email can become a threat to an employer’s competitiveness, so offering formal training in networking skills would benefit both companies and the individuals concerned.”

Value of physicality

Of course, many professional relationships now begin online – whether that’s through a LinkedIn connection or a candidate looking at a careers page. It is when we want that relationship to go further that the value of a physical meeting comes in.

“I absolutely believe you can build a relationship online – for example, we publish our recruitment opportunities via Facebook – but this then leads to an opportunity to meet these people in person to cement that relationship,” says Donna Miller, HR director for European operations for Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

For HR professionals, email communications can be both a necessity and a burden, she adds: “In HR you need to keep an audit trail of certain conversations, so using email is a good way of keeping things documented. But there may also be a sensitive issue – perhaps a manager is thinking about terminating someone’s role, for instance- where having a record of that conversation could become difficult at a later stage, for example if it was required under a court subpoena.”

Building bonds

However, when it comes to developing future business or building relationships between departments, it does help to be able to open up to colleagues or potential new clients face to face.

;”>Helen Straw, of consulting firm ;”>The Personnel Partnership, says HR can play a role in fostering the right modes of communication for the right circumstances: “Some employees ‘hide’ behind technology and various social media platforms when a more appropriate approach would be face to face. Tone and content can so often be misinterpreted over email, so it’s up to HR to encourage managers to stop emailing where a face-to-face meeting would be more appropriate. Managers often shy away from conflict as they don’t feel comfortable or confident dealing with it.”

In the Hays report, Ely suggests a number of practical ways that HR can re-introduce the importance of interpersonal skills in their organisations. He stresses the importance of developing “weak ties”, for example – the people you may encounter casually on- or offline – who may become useful in the future. Another area where HR can help is in identifying “marzipan managers”, so-called because they are stuck under a layer of email and paperwork, and encourage them to network.

Encouraging face-to-face communication will also gain in importance as teams become more dispersed and more workers operate from home or work flexible hours, says Miller: “Our team of six people aren’t always physically there together in the office at the same time – two of the staff work flexibly – so it’s important to find a way for the team to communicate and identify times when everyone can meet face to face.”

Raising your profile

Finding a way to communicate offline – or if geography makes this impossible, via video calling or Skype – may even improve how effective and influential you are at work.

According to careers coach Denise Taylor of Amazing People, the visual cues we receive when we communicate face-to-face can help is to negotiate: “Sometimes people think that if they demand something over email – for example, an extension to a project deadline – they’ll just receive a simple answer. Good interpersonal skills will help it to become more of a negotiation and they might end up with a better result if they discuss it in person.”

Ely at Hays warns that, as more and more communication moves online, this has created a more static workforce that is “losing confidence, dynamism and the tangential benefits of real human contact”.

While that viewpoint may be slightly extreme, it is possible to find a workable balance between the ease and efficiency of email and social media, and knowing the value of having a real dialogue. “It’s all about recognising what’s appropriate,” concludes Taylor. “If you’re just sending off a document [electronic communication is] fine, but if you want to be more influential then sometimes it’s just better to stand up and face someone.”