Employee engagement: technology versus face-to-face


Need to know:

  • Employers need to provide a combination of technology and more traditional methods to motivate and engage staff.
  • Technology’s strengths are its reach and speed, but data needs to be used effectively in order to personalise communications.
  • Employees still need face-to-face interactions when it comes to team-building and dealing with serious issues where they need to ask relevant questions.

As technology advances, the days of motivating and engaging employees through face-to-face communications, town hall meetings and team events are in danger of being superseded.

Nevertheless, while technology has the power to reach a wider, more diverse audience across different demographics and locations, is it really a universal solution?

Workplace technology

There is a plethora of technology at employees’ fingertips, including emails, text messaging and smartphone apps, as well as workplace collaboration tools like Slack, and employers’ own internal platforms.

Tom O’Connor, enterprise customer success director at PerkBox, says: “The introduction of technology in the workforce means there’s a great opportunity to motivate and engage employees if we use it in the right way.”

While some might claim that an increase in screen time could decrease interpersonal skills, there are also benefits to having a comprehensive approach to workplace technology, says Matt Garner, co-founder of Ethos Farm Technologies. “There is so much tech to steer away from interactions, but if you can create a really educated, on-brand workforce, then you give a greater customer service experience.”

Consider the audience

With so many tools available, how do employers know which are the best to motivate and engage staff? This all depends on the audience, says Kiarna Tarr, senior communications consultant at Like Minds.

“Maybe [an employer has] multi-site and multi-geographical locations,” she explains. “[They] need to look at what [the employees are] used to and what the possibilities are, look at the demographics.”

Relevant and timely messages

Once an employer has taken the time to consider the methods that will be most effective, the next step in can be taken to make communications engaging and relevant: targeting the messages themselves.

Targeting might take the form of alerting an employee to events or products pertinent to their tastes in food or music, and providing information on available discounts. This level of personalisation is one of the key advantages of technology.

Victoria Carvalho, managing director, employee loyalty at Ten Lifestyle Group, says: “The person needs to understand why they’re receiving a communication, so they are more likely to take action as a result. It really helps employees to manage their lives and helps their work-life balance and to keep them motivated and engaged.”

Jon Bryant, director of technology and engagement at Aon, agrees: “With technology, you are able to get bite-sized messages based on the data points from providers and employers. We have all this data to use to get the right message to the right person at the right time.”

However, no matter how targeted a digital message, employees can still cease to be engaged, warns Tarr. “Technology can be ignored and people get bored if you don’t grab them within the first five seconds, so you have to be really careful about messaging. That’s why [employers] need to make the message effective. So, [organisations] can send them a text or email telling them [they] have £100 more in [their] pension. It’s more rewarding than having to log into a portal and remember another password.”

A place for face-to-face

Employees might be overwhelmed by the number of apps and emails vying for their attention. Therefore, although budget and time constraints are the biggest factors in not having face-to-face interactions, employers should not rule them out. There are also some elements that, for all the advantages of digital methods, are hard to recreate.

If you could talk to someone for one minute, you get that connection and trust on a human level and you can ask questions,” explains Tarr. “This is really important when you are talking about benefits, finance and health especially. 

“Face-to-face is also important for teams as they can build a more collaborative environment, making people connect and come up with ideas to innovate which can help the business grow. It also means that people will be on the same page.”

There is no getting away from the high impact of personal interactions, says O’Connor. “Digital has a high volume, but you can’t see people’s responses. You have to bear in mind that if you need to communicate something serious, if you do it via technology, [it could] impact people in a negative way.”

Strength in combination

In this age of remote working, however, it is not always possible to get an employee into the same room. It is also worth noting that, with advancements in the available methods of staying in contact, such as video calling, technology and face-to-face communications are not necessarily separate concepts. Instead, the progress of one might prove to increase the effectiveness of the other.

As with many elements of the employee experience, there is no definitive answer as to which approach is better, and no universally ideal approach. Instead, employers should work to discover what appeals to their own populations; this will more than likely prove to be a mixture of the quick, far-reaching digital message, and the human connection provided face-to-face.

Future developments

To counter vast increases in terms of the number of apps and programmes employees are subjected to both in and out of work, a key development is the emergence of ‘mesh technologies’. These aim to combine apps together, creating a seamless experience for employees.

“Then there’s integrating technologies like Alexa with personal data,” Bryant adds. “Alexa will be able to tell you about your pension plan or add a dependant onto your insurance. Blockchains are also emerging which are like a personal safe with all your data in it, including medical information, which your employer could access in order to provide and tailor benefits.”

However, advances into a fully technology-based employee experience may not be as fast as expected, due to workers’ concerns about how they interact with the digital world, warns O’Connor.

“We’re going through a very interesting time because of data privacy, where people are really checking [their] relationship with technology,” he explains. “People are reflecting on that and thinking about the software tools they use, whether in the workplace or at home. People are making sure [they are] not communicating entirely with tech, and that’s the best balance.”

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