Firing people by text message or, as in the appalling case of 800 P&O workers, by video is both morally wrong and reputationally hugely damaging. What’s more, when the information transferred really matters face-to-face communication is always the most effective way—or is it?
While, fast and direct face-to-face communication would seem the best way for leaders to communicate essential messages, research from a team at LSE, based on a study of police emergency calls, reveals a more complex picture and offers useful advice on the efficacy of face-to-face vs. other forms of communication.
Because communication in organization is often imperfect, as it requires time and effort and may be hampered by conflicting incentives, it is important for leaders to decide how much co-workers should be encouraged to communicate with each other and what forms of communication to use.
Whether calling a ‘town hall’ meeting or talking to people individually, in person, face-to-face interaction is generally the most authentic and reliable way to relay important or sensitive information among members of a team or organization. However, the LSE study shows that face-to-face can come at a cost and may not always be the most efficient method in certain circumstances.
A review of nearly a million emergency calls made to the police in Manchester over a two-year period, of which one in four of the calls included face-to-face discussions between sender and receiver, provided a basis for comparing types of communication vis à vis effective police responses to emergency incidents. The results showed how face-to-face works, when it works and when it doesn’t. Two key findings were that:
i) Face-to-face communication improves the flow of information and as a rule led to faster police response times.
ii) Face-to-face communication comes at a cost to efficiency. As senders’ efficiency is influenced by their availability for emergencies—greater reliance on face-to-face communication reduced efficiency.
These contrary findings, that communication improves the productivity of its receiver while generating a time cost on the part of its sender, leads to trade-offs. Either the positive impact of face-to-face communication is diminished by senders choosing to sacrifice less of their time to interactions in order to improve their own efficiency, or efficiency is reduced to maintain personal contact between sender and receiver. The optimal level is contingent upon costs and benefits, which can be determined by the co-workers or influenced by leadership encouragement.
The results of this study cannot be applied to all situations and there was no analysis of face-to-face communication, comparing in-person with phone or Zoom calls. However, the study does offer valuable insights for leaders seeking to improve communication channels and methods in their organizations. For example:
i) Face-to-face communication is a trade-off, requiring one party to sacrifice his or her own efficiency to benefit others.
ii) To encourage face-to-face engagement, leaders should recognize and reward this sacrifice. Communication should be a performance review item.
iii) To increase the motivation to communicate leaders should encourage the collegiality of colleagues, and eliminate career path motivators that inhibit communication.
iv) Social welfare considerations can significantly influence the motivation of individuals to engage in face-to-face communication.
v) The positive impact of face-to-face communication in emergencies suggests organizations should create a specific face-to-face channel for communication in emergency situations.
Access the original research paper here: ‘Face-to-Face Communication in Organisations. Diego Battiston, Jordi Blanes i Vidal, Tom Kirchmaier. Review of Economic Studies (March 2021).