Impact of Face-to-Face Communication on Employee Engagement

Has the Impact of Face-to-Face Communication On Employee Engagement Been Duly Researched in Academia?

By Patricia Espinosa, Jennifer Wiggins, Carmecia Carson-Glover, and Larrissa Clavon from the University of Southern California

See the oral presentation here »

The link Between Face-to-Face Communications and Employee Engagement

American corporations are interested in improving employee engagement, as evidenced by the approximate $720 million a year investment that they make on initiatives to improve it (Gerst, 2013). Employee engagement is also a highly popular research topic in academia, focused on understanding what is to be gained when employees are engaged, given that employee engagement has been found to produce positive organizational outcomes (Radda, Majidadi & Akanno, 2015). A review of employee engagement surveys confirms that it has influence over multiple corporate objectives, such as customer satisfaction, return on investment, productivity, turnover, employee safety, employee attendance, and product quality (Harter & Schmidt, 2013). Furthermore, the concept of employee engagement is important because employees will exert discretionary effort if they find meaning in their daily work (Ruck & Welch, 2012; Martin & Schmidt, 2010).

While there is no set definition or means to measure employee engagement (Gruman & Saks, 2011), general consensus amidst scholars defines it as a sense of connectedness with the organization and the feeling of positive thoughts about one’s work environment (Karanges, Johnston, Beatson & Lings, 2015; Hoeven, van Zoonen & Fonner, 2016; Mishra, Boynton & Mishra, 2014; Saks, 2006; Gruman & Saks, 2011).

Organizational communication is shown to build employee engagement and plays a significant role in daily organizational operations as well as interpersonal relationships. “Foundationally, communication involves a two-way exchange of information” (Mishra, Boynton & Mishra, 2014, p. 602), and internal communications that focus on linking employees to their overall organization and linking managers to their teams will yield the highest return on employee engagement (Karanges, Johnston, Beatson & Lings, 2015). O’Kane and Hargie (2007) go further to claim that “effective communication from management and the organization have the most important role within the constructs of satisfaction and performance” (p. 20).

Communication has evolved with the globalization of organizations and the introduction of new communication technologies. Computer-mediated communication supports the pace at which society is growing and shows pronounced impact on interpersonal relations. Specific to the workplace, computer-mediated communication connects both colocated and distributed teams (Gruman & Saks, 2011), offers some continuity in communication modes organization-wide, increases “information accuracy” (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p.24), bridges time-zones, and increases flexibility with scheduling appointments (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007). Face-to-face communication contrasts computer-mediated communication in its timeliness and practicality (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p. 21); however, is comparably more “rich” for its added verbal and nonverbal context in communicating (Rhoads, 2010; O’Kane & Hargie, 2007).

And although much of the employee engagement research has been focused on how communication practices may influence it, the specific role that ‘face-to-face’ communications play in employee engagement has been largely ignored. The purpose of this literature review is to demonstrate that the impact of ‘face-to-face’ communications on employee engagement has not been duly covered by research.

Review of Literature

The information in this paper will be organized per the following communication topics: 1) internal communications, 2) mediating effect of communications on productivity and turnover, and 3) communications as a factor for employee’s positive feelings about the workplace.

Internal Communications – Computer-Mediated vs. Face-to-Face

Employee engagement is influenced by the opportunities for an employee to “feed [their] views upward” (Ruck & Welch, 2012, p. 296); to feel they are valued by and one with the organizational whole (Ruck & Welch, 2012; Gruman & Saks, 2011). Social Identity Theory speaks to an employee’s sense of “oneness” with the organization (Ruck & Welch, 2012, p. 295). An increased sense of organizational identity creates a greater sense of organizational camaraderie and positively influences performance (Gruman & Saks, 2011; Rhoads, 2010). Goodall, Terthewey, and McDonald (2006) suggest that effective communication allows for the confident and open exchange of thoughts within the bounds of trust. Mishra, Boynton, and Mishra (2014) go further to assert that “timely, accurate, and relevant” information directly from line management and peers breeds confidence in an organization (p. 185) and that trust is conducive to employee engagement. To increase a sense of organizational identity, effective communication cannot just be one-sided, but a two-way dialogue (Goodall, Terthewey & McDonald, 2006; Mishra et al., 2014; Ruck & Welch, 2012).

For communication’s impact on establishing organizational identity, it is helpful to understand the different contexts of knowledge sharing that can take place within the workplace. Broadly, communication can be explicit or tacit, business or personal, and objective or subjective in nature. Depending on the complexity of the content, employees and management should be mindful in their approach to sharing with their peers and management (Eisenberg, 1984; Ruck & Welch, 2012; O’Kane & Hargie, 2007).

Explicit knowledge — codifiable knowledge (Levin & Cross, 2004, p. 1479) — can easily be shared through computer-mediated communication, with credence given to the benefits of “increased informational accuracy” and permanency (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p. 24). Tacit knowledge — complex knowledge often acquired through years of work experience — is most often and best passed on through face-to-face communication (Kick, Contacos-Sawyer & Thomas, 2015; Stryker & Santoro, 2012; Al Saifi, Dillon & McQueen, 2016) and may be lost with sole reliance on computer-mediated communications (Kick et al., 2015).

For more personal matters, employees must judiciously choose whether computer-mediated communication or face-to-face communication is best for resolving conflict or accurately sharing personal information. O’Kane and Hargie (2007) argue that email allows for decisiveness in crafting messages, yet individuals can still act hastily and project an ambiguous tone that can lead to confusion and frustration (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007; Rhoads, 2010). Subsequently, a drawback of email, or any digital communication, is the ability to misread or “read into” messages beyond their original intent (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p.29). Media Richness Theory, created by Daft and Lengel, elevates communications full of “emotional, normative, or attitudinal “cues” as “rich” and the lack thereof as “lean” (Rhoads, 2010, p. 115). This theory states that communications range between “rich” and “lean,” with face-to-face communication being the richest (Rhoads, 2010). Furthermore, Symbolic Interactionism and Medium Theory indicate that the medium itself may have more influence than the content (Cameron & Webster, 2005; Ruck & Welch, 2012) and that with delicate matters, there be a foundation of trust, as trust best facilitates employee engagement (Eisenberg, 1984).

Clearly there are many benefits to computer-mediated communication, one being its numerous modalities such as social media, instant messaging, email, blogs, forums, and intranets to name a few. This is beneficial for teams that cannot meet in-person or when face-to-face meetings are inopportune (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007). Media Synchronicity Theory supports computer-mediated communication’s efficiency, whereby employees are simultaneously able to brainstorm, problem-solve, and collaborate on projects. However, O’Kane and Hargie (2007) suggest that computer-mediated communication isn’t as effective for brainstorming as its inherent nature decreases the free flow of discussion (p. 24), and may influence employee engagement.

Face-to-face is the most media rich mode of communication (Rhoads, 2010) and can also elicit direct and unfettered responses that can be beneficial to brainstorming (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007).

No matter the nature of the content being communicated, computer-mediated communication seems to lessen the perceived barriers of hierarchies by making access to upper management more available (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p. 24). Since “face-to-face is not always possible or practical,” computer-mediated communication allows for communication no matter the geographical or time constraints (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p. 21). Though Social Information Processing Theory and Media Naturalness Perspective both purport that, if given time, computer-mediated communications will supplement nonverbal cues, foster closeness, and perform as efficiently as face-to-face; the issues of technology adoption and timeliness must still be considered in terms of employee engagement (Rhoads, 2010).

Media Naturalness Perspective suspects that employees’ hesitancy to adapt to technology might lie in their innate desire for communal face-to-face interaction: “Thus, the use of many communication technologies may feel unnatural. The more unnatural a communication medium feels, the more cognitive effort people have to exert, the more ambiguity arises, and the more people undergo suppressed physiological anxiety (Kock 2002)” (Rhoads, 2010, p. 116). Media Naturalness Perspective goes further to support the productive and efficient development of “virtual teams”; however, that is only if time allows for group nurturing and growth (Rhoads, 2010. p. 116).

O’Kane and Hargie (2007) oppose Social Information Processing Theory and Media Naturalness Perspective in that their research finds “that without regular personal interaction, relationships could deteriorate or not develop at all” and “it was suggested that in order to build any working relationship, a level of personal contact must be established” (p. 26). The need for face-to-face communication is clear; yet computer-mediated communication has its place. The question remains whether these communication mediums influence employee engagement.

For its usefulness in an organization, technology must be useful and easy to understand. Adaptive Structuration Theory asserts that “technology’s usefulness influences whether [employees] use it or not” (Rhoads, 2010, p. 116), and Critical Mass Theories suggests that when a majority of employees actively engage with a particular technology, its adoption in the whole community should happen quickly (Cameron & Webster, 2005). As such, the usefulness and simplicity must be present for computer-mediated communication to be effective. Thus, for employees to effectively voice their opinions and stay informed, they must utilize technology and techniques that are unique to their organization, as supported by Social Dynamic Media Theory (Rhoads, 2010).

According to Gable, Chyung, Marker, and Winiecki (2010), oftentimes managers do not know what to do with the results they receive from their company’s employee engagement surveys. Furthermore, their study demonstrates that when managers receive these results via email only, the managers are less likely to view the survey results as important to help improve employee engagement. This is in contrast with employees who receive this information via other means such as team meetings or face-to-face interactions. This study further establishes the need to investigate the moderating effect of face-to-face communications on employee engagement.

Another way companies are connecting employees to business information is through workplace social network technology such as Workplace by Facebook, LinkedIn, Slack, Microsoft Yammer, and IBM Connections (Sharma & Bhatnagar, 2016). On a broader context, social media, from blogs to forums to online social networks (OSNs), has become a major venue for social interaction and communication over face-to-face communication (Kairam, Brzozowski & Huffaker, 2012). Karim, Brzozowski, and Huffaker (2012) state that “In the United States, over 65% of adult Internet users are currently active on social networking tools” (Kairam et al., 2012, p.1065).

The goal for workplace social network technology is to allow employees to connect with each other and to access business information openly and frequently to increase their engagement (Sharma & Bhatnagar, 2016). The idea is to foster an open environment where employees can access each other’s expertise via online communities available only to members of the organization (Sharma & Bhatnagar, 2016). Also, workplace social networks can allow employees to resolve issues, join discussion forums, generate ideas, participate in decision making, onboard new hires, and make connections with subject matter experts across hierarchical levels and geographies (Sharma & Bhatnagar, 2016). Social interactions through networking technology can increase engagement by making employees feel more empowered compared to email (Pathak, 2015), and free to widely share ideas across the organization — all important indicators of employee engagement (Sharma & Bhatnagar, 2016). However, this study fails to account for how engaging employees digitally will impact the overall quality of interactions between employees, and if face-to-face communication would still be needed and to what level (Sharma & Bhatnagar, 2016; Skeels & Gruding, 2009).

In a related article, Kairam, Brzozowski, and Huffaker (2012) explain how Google+ is a new option that allows for the sharing of information within the workplace. Google+ allows users to selectively share content with specific groups of people within a company’s firewall. And the purpose of Google+ is to provide interactive communication to reach a mass of employees in the workplace. This study also fails to quantify how a move away from face-to-face interaction will either support or detract from employee engagement (Kairam et al., 2012, p.1065).

While these emerging technologies are helping employees share information and feel engaged in their jobs, the risks for inappropriate information sharing and privacy concerns are still prevalent (Skeels & Gruding, 2009). Managers can attempt to mitigate these risks by implementing guidelines and delivering staff training, yet the question remains whether or not these technologies can help strengthen bonds among employees, and if so, to what level compared to face-to-face communication (Skeels & Gruding, 2009).

Arguably, internal organizational communications help employees to feel well-informed. Karanges, Johnston, Beatson, and Lings (2015) contend that internal communications serve several roles, including the distributing of information to employees, developing a community for employees, and more importantly, influencing employee engagement. In their study, the authors discovered that internal communications impacted positively employee engagement by approximately 23% (Karanges et al., 2015). Furthermore, Social Exchange Theory provides some insight into why the provision of communications to employees, in a way that is perceived as positive, can influence employees to reciprocate with behaviors consistent with employee engagement. Increased employee engagement can be achieved when corporations encourage their employees to share their opinions and ideas through internal communication channels (Karanges et al., 2015). Although this study is important, it does not address the impact of face-to-face communication and its regulating effect on employee engagement.

 

Mediating Effect of Communications On Employee Productivity and Turnover

Currently, corporate leaders are focused on increasing employee engagement so as to derive benefits from it: benefits such as increased productivity and decreased turnover (Gruman & Saks, 2011).

Productivity can be simply defined as “the efficiency with which [a] conversion occurs” (Syverson, 2011, p. 326). A few means for improving productivity include bridging communication deficiencies laterally and vertically (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007); ensuring the effective sharing of knowledge (Al Saifi et al., 2016); and spurring on innovation through collaboration (Al Saifi et al., 2016). Turnover is the willful or involuntary leaving of employees from an organization. It has often been associated with burnout (Ter Hoeven, van Zoonen & Fonner, 2016; Gruman & Saks, 2011), a lack of identifying with the organization as a whole (Martin & Schmidt, 2010), and a lack of “meaningful” and “challenging” work (Nohria, Groysberg & Lee, 2008, p. 5). Hill (1995) suggests that employees who feel unfulfilled may become disengaged from the organization and, subsequently, become less productive. Nohria et al. (2008) suggests that the “drive to comprehend accounts for the desire to make a meaningful contribution. [And employees] are motivated by jobs that challenge them and enable them to grow and learn” (p. 3). By engaging employees with meaningful, challenging work, they are less likely to willfully leave an organization (Nohria et al., 2008; Martin & Schmidt, 2010). Increased productivity, in turn, further instills a sense of accomplishment and value in the organization and provides opportunities for employees to grow and learn through challenging work (Nohria et al., 2008).

In their article, Cameron and Webster (2005) discuss the introduction of Instant Messaging (IM) to corporations, its ultimate advantages and disadvantages to employees, and its enduring influence on employee engagement. The authors sought to determine how effective IM is in an organization, and their results showed a significant correlation of its success to its symbolization of informality. To explain their findings, three main themes emerged from the study to clarify why IM is preferred over other forms of communication: Critical Mass, Symbolic Cues, and Media Richness. Critical Mass allows for communication with a larger mass of people and providing little effort to do so (Cameron & Webster, 2005). For Symbolic Cues, the analysis of the interview data revealed that 13 (68%) of the interviewees felt that sending a message through IM suggested an informal tone (Cameron & Webster, 2005, pp.95-96). Media Richness showed that quick responses were the only dimension of ‘richness’ on which IM systems rated highly.

While providing an easier and faster way for employees to communicate may lead to increased productivity and decreased collaboration costs, the gap in this study is the overall impact on communication quality. Perhaps it is best to implement this technology in an organization that requires collaboration from teams in different geographical locations and where there is a need to decrease communications cost (Cameron & Webster, 2005). Hinds and Mortensen (2005) go further to suggest that “spontaneous communication” — impromptu and casual in nature — may benefit organizations that are geographically spread out (p. 293).

Not far from IM is social media. Its ability to network peers, supervisors and top level executives with each other and external contacts amounts to greater cohesion and productivity overall (Skeels & Gruding, 2009). Yet much like IM, it offers a history log that is not as easily searchable or shareable and it can prove distracting at times (Skeels, & Grudin, 2009). According to Skeels and Gruding (2009), social networking software has found professional uses, but tensions arise from mixing work and professional connections and from spanning organizational levels (p.104). Where social media can connect persons in varying geographical locations, face-to-face communication is still considered most effective for networking, aiding in establishing trust, and building relationships (Rhoads, 2010).

A popular computer-mediated communication technology is email. It is a particularly strong medium because of its ubiquity in daily life, and email benefits organizations with greater “information accuracy” and greater permanency of information (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p. 24). Employees may find email advantageous for its ability to craft a message thoughtfully with less pressure to respond immediately juxtapose to instant messaging (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007). While email benefits employees with the ability to send mass messages laterally and vertically, it can also be intentionally or unintentionally misused. Email can still be sent hastily, and with its greater permanency, employees may fear their words can be used against them, misunderstood, or “read into” (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p.29). Email can be used as a facade of busyness and a mean for deferring responsibility (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007). A more common complaint of email is information overload (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007, p. 22). Without proper training in organizational communication, details can soon get lost in an overabundance of messages that in turn can lead to slower information consumption and added stress and therefore influence engagement levels (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007; Denton & Richardson, 2012).

One last notable computer-mediated communication technology is the intranet. Denton and Richardson (2012) purport that intranets are the preferred method for creating and sharing knowledge, especially for strategic decision-making. Intranets serve as a permanent informational database and can easily locate information through keyword searches and filtering options (Denton & Richardson, 2012). Like many computer-mediated communications, this technology lacks the verbal and nonverbal cues that add context to information. Face-to-face communication is the richest form of media (Rhoads, 2010) and is conducive to sharing knowledge, most especially tacit knowledge (Kick et al., 2015; Stryker & Santoro, 2012; Al Saifi et al., 2016).

Tacit knowledge is complex knowledge that is acquired through the years of work experience, best shared with verbal and nonverbal cues and with a foundation of trust between teacher and student (Levin & Cross, 2004). Face-to-face communications proves the best mode for communicating tacit knowledge (Kick et al., 2015; Stryker & Santoro, 2012; Al Saifi et al., 2016), and it is believed that tacit knowledge might be lost if the organization relies on computer-mediated communication as the main means for communication (Kick et al., 2015).

The introduction of computer-mediated communication technology into the workforce has evolved the nature of organization structure. Employees can now work remotely or collaborate with persons half a world away. Computer-mediated communication no doubt has assisted in many great achievements by increasing lateral and vertical communication both near and far; yet it may unintentionally negatively affect the development of soft skills in employees. Kick, Contacos-Sawyer, and Thomas (2015) argue that technology usage may have an over exaggerated effect on Generation Z’s (those born in the late 1990s) capacity to communicate well in the corporate world; and if they find themselves unsuccessful in America’s corporations, their ability to be productive might be in jeopardy. It is now upon employers to find ways to leverage this new generation’s preference for using emails or text instead of engaging in face-to-face interactions (Kick et al., 2015).

The question is whether or not Generation Z has developed the appropriate soft skills to be productive in corporate America. (Soft skills defined as the capabilities used to work with others to reach goals.) The authors argue that Generation Z may be less able to communicate effectively in an organizational setting due to their overwhelming reliance on smartphones and social media (Kick et al., 2015). Although Generation Z uses technology mainly for entertainment purposes, they also use it to get information. Most of their online time is spent on one-way communication with little two-way interaction, and it is precisely in two-way interactions that soft skills are developed (Kick et al., 2015), as well as employee engagement increased (Goodall et al., 2006; Mishra et al., 2014; Ruck & Welch, 2012). In a recent study conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management (2011), the findings revealed that for Generation Z, 36% of participants had a gap on teamwork and collaboration. Therefore, HR and management should develop ways to counteract the potential problems inherent in diminished face-to-face communication, the less developed soft skills in newer generations of workers, and their combined impact on productivity (Kick et al., 2015). Al Saifi, Dillon, and McQueen (2016) further supports this need for face-to-face interaction training to bolster community and teach employees of every generation to effectively communicate in meetings and interpersonally for the benefit of knowledge sharing. Managers can encourage the development of soft skills in increased face-to-face communication by promoting open work areas, low wall cubicles, and co-locating employees in high traffic corridors or public gathering spaces (Stryker & Santoro, 2012).

Another dimension to productivity is innovation. Stryker and Santoro (2012) argue that collaboration and face-to-face interactions are primary factors in increasing innovation. Furthermore, that face-to-face communication is more effective in transferring complex information, including context and rationale, than other types of communication and also plays a crucial role in transferring and advancing organizational knowledge (Stryker & Santoro, 2012; Al Saifi et al., 2016). Although computer-mediated communication easily facilitates polychronic communication, the fluid exchange of ideas is best done when verbal and nonverbal cues can add greater context to conversations (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007). Face-to-face communication lends to a more free and full exchange in ideas, that in contrast to the more linear nature of computer-mediated communication conversations, allows for conversational wandering and expounding (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007). The ability for the conversation to “wander” may be contested as unproductive; however, creativity can come in forming ties with ideas once considered outside-the-box (Mumaw, 2013).

Inherent in computer-mediated communication and its impact on increasing employee engagement is the concern for employee privacy (Cameron & Webster, 2005). Studies implicate that employees may not feel safe in sharing information that could be monitored, stored, queried, or used against them in an employee-employer relationship (Cameron & Webster, 2005; O’Kane & Hargie, 2007). This dynamic can be explained by Electronic Monitoring Theories (Cameron & Webster, 2005). Theses theories consist of privacy and fairness. Privacy, as it relates to IM, comes in the form of individual activity statuses: “the presence awareness capabilities of IM allows employees to know which colleagues are currently present and available for communicating” (Cameron & Webster, 2005, p. 93).

Similarly, social media, email, and intranets have a form of “history” that can be searched with varying levels of complexity. For Fairness, “past research has demonstrated that employees view electronic monitoring systems not only as an invasion of privacy but as unfair and it has been well-established that fairness plays a key role in determining reactions to organizational processes and employee engagement” (Cameron & Webster, 2005, p. 93). Therefore, as managers are faced with rolling out new technology to their organizations, they must remain aware and sensitive to their employees’ privacy and fairness concerns, as well as the need for face-to-face communication despite how much computer-mediated communication technologies are embraced and perceived to increase employee engagement.

Research shows that all types of communication within the workplace increase familiarity, similarity, and team cohesiveness (Stryker & Santoro, 2012), and that integrated teams perform tasks that require coordination and communication more efficiently than those teams that are not cohesive (Stryker & Santoro, 2012). Productivity and profitability increase with efficient use of internal organizational communication (Mishra, Boynton & Mishra, 2014, p. 184). Organizations must wisely choose the best modes of communication that shares information in a “timely, accurate, and relevant” manner (Mishra et al., 2014, p. 185). Employees believe that such information when shared appropriately from line management and peers breeds confidence in an organization and trust, which ultimately increases employee engagement (Mishra et al., 2014). Groups can form a trusting and cohesive rapport through face-to-face interactions, which naturally lessens opportunism between teammates (Rhoads, 2010, p.113), and perhaps may subsequently ease fears with regard to privacy and fairness. “Pounsford (2007) found that communication strategies such as storytelling, informal communication, and coaching led to greater employee engagement, as well as increased levels of trust in the organization and increased revenue due to greater customer satisfaction” (Mishra et al., 2014, p. 184). Organizations must consider “human barriers” in promoting computer-mediated communication such as “organizational culture, individual/social culture, training methods, design, perceptions, context, structure of teams, leadership, time and age, to name a few” (Rhoads, 2010, p 118). In the end, technology should be seen as a catalyst for learning and not stifle creativity (Kaul, 2012). The overt efficiency of face-to-face communications over computer-mediated communication proves that “physical proximity […] will remain pivotal” to organizations (Rhoads, 2010, p. 111). The factor that needs to be considered is whether or not computer-mediated communication technology increases productivity through employee engagement (Cameron, & Webster, 2005, p. 96).

 

Communications as a Factor for Employee’s Positivity About the Workplace

In researching employee engagement, one factor has been found consistent as an indicator of behaviors supportive of employee engagement in the workforce: employees positive feelings toward their work (Saks, 2006). In her article, Saks (2006) aims to show the distinction between job and organizational engagement as it relates to employee engagement, and demonstrates that most employees want to have some type of positive engagement or interaction with their employer.

Positive interaction allows the employee to perform at a higher standard when they feel appreciated. As explained in this quote, “Engagement is not an attitude; it is the degree to which an individual is attentive and absorbed in the performance of their roles” (Saks, 2006, p.6). This study also emphasizes that employee engagement is a very loose term and has been defined in many ways. The one definition that most can relate to: employee engagement as an emotional and intellectual commitment to the organization (Saks, 2006).

Saks (2006) explains her findings through Social Exchange Theory, arguing that through long-term and ongoing interactions, employees and employers can create interdependence on each other, and if those interdependencies are positive, the potential for employee engagement is heightened (Saks, 2006).

With the advancement of technology, employees are now able to enjoy flexible work schedules, telecommuting arrangements, compressed work weeks, and other flexible work practices. And while technology has made that possible, it also presents a paradox to the modern workforce (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016).

The paradox is that while employees are feeling more engaged and motivated by having autonomy; the increased access to their work email, texts, and other forms of technology are also leading to more taxing job demands in the form of work interruptions and increased unanticipated and unpredictable tasks (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016; Gruman & Saks, 2011). It is natural to characterize employee engagement by energy and burnout by high levels of exhaustion (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016; Gruman & Saks, 2011). In academia, the impact of the ‘always on’ expectation for the corporate worker will probably need to be investigated and measured to identify if it leads to job engagement or job burnout. In their study, Ter Hoeven, van Zoonen, and Fonner (2016) argue that job resources, such as new technology, can motivate employees and lead to job engagement. Yet on the other hand, unlimited access to technology can produce task unpredictability, and the perception of unlimited demands may increase job burnout. This is further supported in the Job Demands-Resources (J D-R) model outlined in Gruman and Saks’ (2011) Performance management and employee engagement. J D-R presents Job Demands as a ‘withdrawal’ from employees to sustain “physical, psychological, social, or organizational [job] features” and Job Resources, conversely, as a ‘deposit’ toward “motivation” and “positive attitudes” (Gruman & Saks, 2001, pp.126-127). The factors to consider then are whether or not the increased work demands, in the form of 24/7 access to technology, can ultimately produce negative feelings in employees toward their workplace; how these feelings may impact employee engagement; and what mediating factor does technology play in creating demands in 24-hour cycles (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016).

One way to cope with the increase in demands brought on by technology would be for managers and leaders to establish appropriate communication guidelines to avoid employee burnout due to technology overuse (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016; Mishra et al., 2014; Skeels & Grudin, 2009; Saks, 2006). Managers can help employees to manage the technology pressures by setting a good example and not email employees on weekends or late at night and expect a response (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016). Furthermore, the availability of technology to workers on an unlimited basis may impact how face-to-face communication evolves in the workplace and it remains to be seen if there is an impact on employee engagement.

 

Reviewing the literature leads us to believe that employee engagement should be further researched in academia, specifically for how face-to-face communication precisely influences it. Current research that directly supports the effectiveness of face-to-face communication on influencing employee engagement is minimal, with most addressing the effectivity of face-to-face communication in the realms of knowledge sharing and medium choice. Collectively, research supports face-to-face communication as the richest form of media (Rhoads, 2010); that it is conducive to innovation (Stryker & Santoro, 2012), promoting of free-form discussion (O’Kane & Hargie, 2007), and most effective in sharing tacit knowledge (Kick et al., 2015; Stryker & Santoro, 2012; Al Saifi et al., 2016). These qualities arguably impact an employee’s sense of connectedness with their organization, the benefits an organization derive from increased productivity and decreased turnover, and an employee’s feelings of positive thoughts about their work environment (Karanges, Johnston, Beatson & Lings, 2015; Hoeven, van Zoonen & Fonner, 2016; Mishra, Boynton & Mishra, 2014; Saks, 2006; Gruman & Saks, 2011). Numerous studies champion the need for organizational training to moderate the use of computer-mediated communication and mediate the effective use of face-to-face communication. For this reason, the proposed research question is, What impact does face-to-face communication have on employee engagement?

 

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Jennifer Wiggins