Today the term “social network” brings to mind Facebook, LinkedIn and other websites in which the relationships between people is a resource.
Individuals can leverage this resource to spread word of a new accomplishment, say, or make connections that might lead to a new job. In the same way, the relationships between individuals in teams at work influence both performance and job satisfaction.
Yet increasingly work teams are made up of people who are not in the same city, let alone the same building. They are physically dispersed and often more in contact via electronic communication (phone call, e-mail, text) than meeting face-to-face.
What factors most influence these communication networks and determine individual performance and job satisfaction? A study on this question involved 18 on-going teams, with 254 workers, in a variety of industries — among them, a university, several information technology firms and a pharmaceutical company.
While managers often consider communicating face-to-face critical to performance in teams, the study found that in many of today’s teams, electronic communication is perhaps even more important. The best performers were team members who were more active in the team’s electronic network.
Thanks to electronic communication, higher performing members of the teams tended to have access to contacts in a variety of locations — contacts that could often bring new information helpful to getting the job done.
Electronic communication also brought information to the high performers at a faster rate. As one put it: “If I need to talk to someone, I can’t wait for face-to-face meetings. I use e-mail all the time. It’s a lot more efficient and (my team members) know they need to get in touch with me that way too.”
However, the study found that team members whose total communication was more heavily electronically-based had lower job satisfaction. Previous research suggests this is because electronic communication is more task-oriented while face-to-face communication is more socially-oriented.
“I get the information I need to get my work done, but they don’t really know I’m here,” another team member said. “They answer my e-mails and phone calls most of the time, but we never really talk, you know … we’re not going to spend a lot of time chit-chatting.”
How can managers use the results of the study to improve the performance of their teams? Encourage, and educate about, electronic communication.
From the moment we are born, we are engaged in face-to-face contact with others and learn basic rules of communication etiquette. By contrast, electronic communication is so relatively new that individuals sometimes struggle with using it effectively. (The study found this was true even of the information technology firms.) Some tips on effective electronic communication include:
--Let people know you have received their e-mail, text message or phone call, and reply in a timely manner. You wouldn’t ignore someone waiting outside your office door; why do it electronically? Responding in a timely, consistent manner will help build trust with your team members.
--Value the time you spend communicating electronically and the time your team member spends reading those messages. Just as it’s OK to chat in the hall for a while, it’s OK to send the occasional social e-mail. Friendly but quick social e-mails show the other team member you value their time and care about the relationship.
--Communicate regularly with a close-knit group of people at work. This ensures that you have the key information needed to do your job and aids in keeping on-going relationships healthy.
--Branch out and make electronic connections with people outside your regular contacts. They can provide you with information that others don’t have — and that can aid your performance on the job.
Chuck Williams is dean of the College of Business at Butler University. Priscilla Arling, assistant professor of management information systems, contributed to this article. For more information on the College and its “real life, real business” approach to business education, visit www.ButlerRealBusiness or e-mail Chuck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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