EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — While email, instant messaging and other computer-to-computer communications are valuable tools in the modern workplace, phone calls and face-to-face conversations add an important dimension that electronic communication cannot replace, according to panelists at a Network of Executive Women event here this month.
“Email has become a way of life, if not an addiction,” said Judy Spires, president of Acme Markets, the Supervalu-owned chain based in Malvern, Pa. “We have to be careful — you get in these back-and-forth email conversations, and it becomes a time-waster.”
She said she just implemented a policy at the 131-store chain this month requiring managers to place a phone call in lieu of sending an email at least once a day.
“Tone is very hard to achieve in email, and tone is very important to me,” she said, noting that she has reduced her own email volume by 70%.
The panel, called “Leadership in a Virtual World,” was hosted at the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel here by the New York Metro Regional branch of NEW. It was moderated by Shon Gables, host of the syndicated television program, “Black Enterprise Business Report.”
Although Spires joked that she enjoys being able to teleconference with Supervalu headquarters in Minneapolis — especially in winter — she said such communication only goes so far.
“There are times when I must fly to Minneapolis, because face time is important,” she said.
When she has face-to-face interactions with those who report to her, Spires said one of the things she always tries to do is find out how those people prefer to communicate.
“Some people like their information cut-and-dried, and they are fine with an email,” she said. “Others like to sit down once a week and talk things out.”
Tom Furphy, vice president of consumables at Amazon.com, Seattle, said that despite his company's predilection for high-tech communications, in-person communication is still very important at Amazon.
“There are some communications that should not be done by email,” he said. “Nothing can beat sitting down and looking someone in the eyes and telling them how it is. Or better yet, listening to them and asking them, ‘How can I support you better?’”
Furphy said he receives about 700-800 emails per day at Amazon, and he also makes use of instant messaging with his largely 20-something, tech-savvy workforce.
Email can be a tremendous productivity enhancer, he noted, because of the simplicity in communicating a message to a group.
“I can send one email to four or five people at once. In real time, that would take four or five half-hour meetings,” he said.
He agreed that communicating a “tone” can be very difficult in such messages, “especially when it's one person communicating to many.”
Robin Matza, director and Northeast Women's Initiative leader for Deloitte & Touche, New York, said that with electronic communication, she is able to disseminate much more information than she used to, which helps “everyone get on the same page.”
“Everything I do now is virtual,” she explained. “I work with people around the world, across the country and down the hall. We work in virtual teams.”
She noted that Deloitte is rolling out an internal social networking tool, a la Facebook, called “d'street,” which will allow employees to find out a little more about the people they work with but might not see face-to-face on a regular basis.
Shelia Stanziale, vice president of small format at PepsiCo, Purchase, N.Y., said there are both pros and cons to working virtually.
“One of the advantages of being virtual and working at home is that I get to set my own schedule and control my own time,” she said. “On the down side, though, you really have to make sure that the time you spend at headquarters is valuable. You have to make sure that the direct and indirect messages you want to send are getting across.”
She pointed out that context can be too easily lost in virtual communications, and that sometimes it helps to brief co-workers with background information via phone before sending an email.
The challenges are particularly acute for virtual workers who are seeking to move up in the organization, the panelists said.
“They need the personal interaction,” said Furphy of Amazon. “If they are only connected to management through bits and bytes, they are not going to get ahead. As someone moving up in the organization, I would strike the right balance between virtual and personal communication. You need to make sure the virtual role is defined, and you need to get face time with the people who are important to your career.”
Spires said the “biggest mistake” a virtual worker can make is to “cut themselves off from civilization.”
“You can get lost in your own world,” she said.