The Impact of Computer-Mediated Communication on the Workplace

The Impact of Computer-Mediated Communication on the Workplace: A Pilot Study
Steve Urquhart, Rick Bommelje, & Wallace V. Schmidt

“We don’t have a lot of time on this earth; we weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day!”

Office Space, Twentieth Century Fox © 1999

Computer-mediated communication permeates our lives and represents a new dawn for business relationships. The purpose of this pilot study is to examine the positive or negative influence of this new technology on interpersonal communication in the workplace. Selected Central Florida organizations were surveyed and the results are reported. Insofar as this is a pilot study, further research questions and new avenues for exploration are raised and articulated.

Technology is changing our lives” appears to be the cliché of the new millenium. Computers and business communication technologies are dramatically affecting every aspect of society, including the business arena. Electronic mail, fax machines, voice mail, the Internet, computer databases, computer billboards, and interactive videoconferencing have shifted and changed the workplace as never before. The way we conduct business, access information, and communicate with one another is rapidly changing, requiring knowledge and skills that adapts to the changes. This high tech environment presents new challenges for traditional face-to-face interpersonal communication.

The purpose of this pilot study is to assess the impact of computer-mediated communication on the workplace and determine whether e-mail has had a positive or negative impact on interpersonal communication. Specifically, have the introduction of e-mail and other forms of computer-mediated communication had an adverse effect on the development of interpersonal communication quality and skills in the workplace. Additionally, this study explores the overall preparedness of the workers (managers and employees) to embrace the new technology and to apply it correctly as a communication medium. Due to the rapid development and instantaneous introduction of new technologies, in contrast to the previous linear developments which took significantly longer to fully emerge (i.e., from telegraph to radio; from radio to telephone), it is conceivable that today’s workers are not receiving adequate training and orientation to the new technologies. The likelihood of inappropriate or imprudent application of such technologies as e-mail is thereby increased in an inversely proportional relationship to the allotted learning curve that supports the new technology implementation (Dizard, 1982).

The Problem and Method of Investigation

The influence of modern technology pervades all aspects of business and personal communications; from the so-called “electronic leashes” known as pagers and cellular phones, to the ubiquitous e-mail systems that have created a platform for asynchronous interpersonal communication on a global scale. The question is, are these tools and resources a boon or a bane to the development of working relationships, physical interaction and professional development? Today, working professionals are afforded the ability to reach, and to be reached by, colleagues, business associates and customers around the clock and around the world. Immediate feedback is an expectation, not a request. The cost to interpersonal development is potentially staggering, and as our reliance on technology in communication continues to increase, we run the risk of relinquishing critical human relationship skills at an inversely proportional rate.

Although e-mail has been available in the scientific and academic communities for over 30 years, its integration as a standard business communication medium has only truly taken hold in the past decade. For this reason, careful scientific analysis of the impact of e-mail on workplace interpersonal communication is limited in scope and grossly insufficient. Some studies have advanced the argument that e-mail has enhanced the ability for working professionals to communicate across boundaries and in virtual work environments (Gabbard, et al., 1997), but have not sufficiently addressed the impact of non-verbal, non-interactive communication in the development of workplace interpersonal communication, or on the communication skills of the workers themselves.

It could perhaps be argued that scientists, engineers and technical staff have a greater propensity toward adopting e-mail as their preferred method of communication, due to their familiarity with the medium, or to the nature of their work, or both. However, research has demonstrated that even the most educated employees may lack the basic skills required for expressing themselves effectively via e-mail. In a management practices study of Information Technology departments at over 40 major United States corporations, it was determined that only 20% of the personnel had received thorough training in the use of e-mail and network-based systems (Davenport, 1997). Most of what has been documented concerns the amount of storage capacity for e-mail on the computer system itself, but not on the impact of e-mail on the cognitive and relational aspects of work (Kraut, et al. 1997; Whittaker & Sidner, 1997).

In the face of a telecommunications revolution in the 1960s, some researchers predicted a wave of alienation that would result from the degradation of face-to-face communication brought about by telephones (Nisbet, 1962). This development was further evaluated as new technologies were introduced, culminating in the advent of computer-mediated communications, such as those transacted via Internet and e-mail. As the availability of alternate communication media increased, the reliance upon traditional, face-to-face communication appeared to decrease, simultaneously expanding the scope of potential communication participants to a global and boundaryless virtual community (Stoll, 1995).

Additionally, while it is fairly certain that the clarity and context of a message may be distorted or lost altogether when transmitted via e-mail, the net effect on interpersonal relationships has not been clearly defined. In the “Village Square Chat” study (McLaughlin, Osborne & Ellison, 1997) an assessment of overall message clarity was attempted, demonstrating that message relevance on a topic-oriented virtual community was adhered to less than half of the time, possibly due to message distortion, misinterpretation of context, or lack of immediate proximal influence by the participants in the Village Square online forum. Similar dissonance is encountered in workplace communication, and especially as messages are passed along to third parties, the original intent and context of the message becomes further obscured.

There are many situations where electronic communications are entirely appropriate, and in fact enable conversations and dialogue that would otherwise be restricted by barriers such as time zone difference, geographical displacement, political and cultural boundaries. However, workers in a traditional office environment require human interaction as an essential ingredient for the development of interpersonal skills. What is taking the place of this interaction is an over-reliance upon electronic communication media as a substitute for interpersonal communication in situations where instruction, feedback and task assignment are concerned. In the wake of this reliance on e-mail and computer-mediated communication, a new workplace hazard has emerged: “e-mail overload” (Whitaker & Sidner, 1997).

The challenge to organizational communication systems seems to be aligning the best communication methods with the appropriate work groups and personnel classes. It is important to assess the preference of communication media, be it telephonic, Web-based, e-mail messaging, or physical face-to-face interaction. With certain work groups, face-to-face interaction has been shown to increase productivity and speed of project development, by facilitating the team integration process and overcoming traditional hierarchical boundaries through daily proximity (Clark & Fujimoto, 1991). Further research has argued that face-to-face communication (as opposed to computer-mediated communication) allows for a greater “richness” of the message – the transfer not only of words but also of vocal tone, body language, facial expressions, and even an inherent sense of trust while being able to look the other person in the eye while being able to look the other person in the eye while speaking. In contrast, e-mail messages are generally “lean” in content, revealing minimal information about the feelings of the participants, and not always true to the intended context of the original message (Davenport, 1997).

Lack of adequate training and coaching in the appropriate uses and applications of e-mail results invariably in its misuse. In addition to the e-mail overload effect mentioned earlier, there is also an inherent risk of losing critical messages or tasks in the wake of this virtual messaging onslaught. Ernst & Young reported, in the context of a business evaluation and strategy report, that one Silicon Valley chief financial officer returned from a week-long business trip to find no less than 2,000 e-mail messages on his computer. In an act of desperation, the CFO deleted all of the messages without prejudice (Houlder, 1997). Within this anecdote is an implied risk that, as the volume of messages increases the chances of critical correspondence being lost in the calculus also increases.

The intent of this pilot project is to illustrate the impact of the introduction of e-mail on the workplace through analysis of its effect on organizational communication levels and perceived impact on interpersonal relationships. Moreover, it will assess staff attitudes toward computer-mediated communication and explore its impact on the typical workplace. Selected Central Florida companies were surveyed by means of a computer-assisted questionnaire and selected on the basis of diversity of mission and integration of technology into the workplace. Table 1 lists the survey participants, the number of employees, and type of company.

TABLE 1
Company/Number of Employees Type of Company
Alamo Rent-a-Car (n = 41)

GES Exposition Services (n = 33)

Siemens Westinghouse Power Corporation (n = 29)

U.S. Army Reserve Transportation Command (n = 34)

Sea World of Florida (n = 16)

Oracle (n = 7)

FiServ (n = 4)

Service

Service

Engineering

Military Government

Hospitality

Technology

Finance

Report of Data

The online survey and interviews revealed the primary functions supported by e-mail to be: (1) interoffice memos [99%], (2) business document sharing [93%], (3) personal messages [89%], (4) sales, service, and customer support [86%], and (5) remote location communication [60%]. Other functions cited included graphic file sharing and telecommuting. Over half of the respondents [53%] indicated that e-mail was used between 50% and 75% of the time, with 23% of the participants using e-mail more than 75% of the time. Moreover, this dependence upon technology did not seem to create significant problems when the network went “down.” The majority of respondents [90%] noted only a slight to moderate interruption of business activities. However, the responses regarding training were more mixed. Only 30% of the respondents believed the company provided adequate training, while 36% believed the training was inadequate with the remainder being undecided.

E-mail was clearly the principal means of communication between management and employees [61%] as well as between employees [70%]. However, while it was the preferred method of communicating with managers, it was less preferred when communicating with co-workers. Table 2 shows the preferred methods of communicating with managers and Table 3 depicts the preferred methods of communicating with co-workers.

TABLE 2 TABLE 3
Preferred method of communicating
with managers?
Preferred method of communicating
with co-workers?
E-mail

Telephone

Informal meetings

Formal meetings

Voice mail

49%

29%

14%

5%

2%

E-mail

Telephone

Informal meetings

Memorandum

37%

20%

31%

5%

Perhaps these differences occur because of the difficulty in conveying key concepts to and discerning key concepts from co-workers via e-mail. Table 4 reveals that respondents perceive difficulties when conveying key concepts to co-workers and Table 5 likewise indicates difficulties when attempting to discern key concepts from co-workers. The medium may lack the necessary “richness” to adequately convey complex, non-routine messages. Still, 57% of the respondents preferred e-mail for receiving business information, with only 35% preferring a face-to-face verbal interaction or informal meeting with their manager or supervisor. The others preferred the interoffice memo or telephone/teleconference.

TABLE 4 TABLE 5
Able to convey key concepts to co-workers? Able to discern key concepts from co-workers?
Agree

Disagree

Strongly Disagree

Undecided

26%

25%

14%

34%

Agree

Disagree

Strongly Disagree

Undecided

37%

37%

5%

37

E-mail is a unique media type defined as “person-to-person(s) communication that takes place between computers…it is a paperless written communication transmitted and received by computer” (Galle, Nelson, Luse and Villere, 1996, p. 76). It is inexpensive and fast, enabling individuals to send and receive messages at any time of the day in a matter of seconds. Additionally, multiple messages may be sent simultaneously and read at the convenience of the receiver. This may account for why the majority of respondents believed that e-mail had enhanced communication within their organizations as shown in Table 6.

TABLE 6
E-mail has enhanced communication?
Agree 43%

Strongly Agree

22%

Undecided

18%

Disagree

14%

Discussion

The results of this pilot study did not conclusively bear out the initial hypothesis that the introduction of e-mail and other forms of computer-mediated communication would adversely impact interpersonal communication. In fact, it appears that e-mail has opened connections in the workplace that, in the traditional hierarchical structure of corporations, had never been available in the past. Although there were dissenting opinions regarding the benefits of e-mail and its effectiveness in certain work environments, overall it has been embraced by the majority of survey participants as the communication medium of choice. Of the seven participating companies, three were in the classification of service and hospitality; two were grouped as finance and technology service, one was primarily an engineering company; and one was a military organization. For the most part, results among each group or pairing were similar. However, some distinctions appear when comparing Siemens Westinghouse Power Corporation (SWPC) with the service and hospitality (Svc/Hosp) companies.

Employees of Siemens Westinghouse, classified as an engineering company, rated their integration of e-mail much more favorably than their counterparts at any of the other participating companies. In contrast, the service and hospitality companies indicated much lower ratings in the same categories. Table 7 shows the overall average scores in selected categories and the degree to which Siemens (SWPC) responses varied from the mean percentage scores.

TABLE 7
Preferred method of receiving business information?

Average Scores SWPC Svc/Hosp
E-mail 57% 68% 43%
Verbally from supervisor 31% 24% 36%
Interoffice memo 7% 0% 11%
Informal meeting 4% 7% 4%
Telephone/teleconference 1% 1% 2%
Preferred method of communicating with managers?

Average Scores SWPC Svc/Hosp
E-mail 49% 62% 38%
Telephone 29% 21% 24%
Informal meetings 14% 15% 18%
Formal meetings 5% 0% 4%
Voice mail 2% 0% 1%

Preferred method of communicating with co-workers?

Average Scores SWPC Svc/Hosp

E-mail

37% 44% 31%

Informal meetings

31% 14% 39%

Telephone

20% 28% 10%

Memorandum

5% 3% 3%

E-mail has enhanced communication?

Average Scores SWPC Svc/Hosp
Agree 43% 58% 31%
Strongly Agree 22% 31% 14%
Undecided 18% 10% 29%
Disagree 14% 1% 24%

This disparity in scores appears to reflect a cultural acceptance of computer technology as a rule in the business environment, and seems to be more prevalent in technology and engineering companies where much of the work is based upon complex mathematics, software and data-driven business decisions. In the hospitality and service companies, where personal interaction is stressed and service is the intangible deliverable commodity, widespread acceptance of computer-mediated communication is less preferred.

It is remarkable how quickly the e-mail technology has taken hold in the workplace. Today, it is nearly mandatory to have at least one e-mail account for business correspondence. Despite dire warnings of an imminent death of human interaction, employees appear to have wholeheartedly embraced the technology, while at the same time abandoning or significantly decreasing their use of other traditional business media. Perhaps Reeves and Nass (1996) offer a partial explanation when they note that people treat communication media as if they were human. There is an interface between human-media relations and we practice the same rules of interpersonal interactions. They observe that “people respond socially and naturally to media even though they believe it is not reasonable to do so and even though they don’t think these responses characterize themselves” (p. 7). Thus, it may be that media effects parallel interpersonal effects.

Also, it is possible that since this pilot survey was conducted primarily over the Internet the participants who elected to respond had a predisposition for business applications on the computer. Such a skew in the demographic representation of the target audience could have had a confounding effect on the overall results of this study. However, Vault.com conducted a similar but broader study that minimized the potential of technology zealots from dominating the response group and biasing the end results

Shortly after initiating this study, Vault.com, an Internet-based human resources consulting company, conducted a nationwide study entitled “E-mail Behavior in the Workplace.” Their findings further confirm these Central Florida results. Table 8 shows where their results dovetail and in some instances where they differ.

TABLE 8
Does e-mail increase/improve communication with your boss?

Yes No
70% 30%
Do you think the tone of your e-mails is sometimes misunderstood?

Yes No
51% 49%

For the majority of your business correspondence, has e-mail replaced phone calls? Replaced faxing? Snail mail?

Yes No
Phone 45% 55%
Faxing 72.5% 27.5%
Snail Mail 80% 20%

Based upon the results of this pilot study, it is not realistic to state unequivocally that the e-mail systems in contemporary companies have adversely impacted the interpersonal communication skills of the employees. To the contrary, it appears that e-mail and computer-mediated communication, particularly in globally positioned companies such as Oracle and Siemens, have created new channels of interaction that actually encourage intercontinental collaboration and idea sharing.

E-mail is an immediate medium and the ease and directness of e-mail is seemingly forging new connections—new conversations—throughout virtually every business. Type-click-deliver. The new technology connects people to each other, and impassions and empowers through those connections. This technology invites participation (Freiberger and Swaine, (2000). Hypertext is inherently nonhierarchical and antibureaucratic. It does not reinforce loyalty and obedience; it encourages speculation and talk—it encourages stories. Levine, Locke, Searls, and Weinberger (2000) observe that “our voice is our strongest, most direct expression of who we are. Our voice is expressed in our words, our tone, our body language, and our visible enthusiasms. Our business voice—in a managed environment—is virtually the same as everyone else’s. Managed businesses have taken our voices. We want to struggle against this” (p. 42).

With today’s technology, boundaries are irrelevant. Time and distance are collapsed. Anyone can access anyone and anything—disregarding time, space, or stature—through groupware, Intranets, and expert systems. All organizations now focus on compressing time, speeding up their responses and processes, making things happen faster and faster. Pick up a phone or turn on your laptop and, like magic, time seems to disappear. You’re connected to any piece of information, to anyone, anywhere. Technology squeezes time to irrelevance. It’s all “real-time” now. Moreover, “place” is unimportant. The “place” of the future is not bolted to the ground. It is virtually anywhere. “Place” no longer matters. Bell and Harari (2000) observe that “successful post-year 2000 organizations of two people or 200,000 are interlocked webs of alliances working anytime, anywhere to add new value. They are collaborative confederations of people with a common purpose: consolidating minds and energy to create something new. These alliances are confederations of equals inside and outside—with permeability, and the ability to cross boundaries” (p. 29). These are friends, companions, associates, accomplices, accessories, and allies talking together and making decisions. Computing has become a social phenomenon and the value of computers is in connecting people.

Conclusion

Computer networks add enormous flexibility and power to the communication channels available to professionals through such options as electronic mail, computer databases, billboards, and interactive videoconferencing. For better or for worse, computer-mediated communication appears to be here to stay. And in this pilot study, e-mail has been deemed the preferred method of overall communication. In fact, it seems the growing popularity of electronic mail has enhanced personal communication within networks. In 1997, an estimated 55 million Americans, which is more than one-fifth of the population, live in homes wired for electronic mail. That’s a significant increase from 5 million users in 1992. According to the Wall Street Journal e-mail has boomed among consumers of the internet, and projected consumer use of electronic mail is only expected to increase, with 135 million users sending 500 million messages per day by the year 2001 (Auerbach, 1997, p. R22).

This pilot study has raised a number of questions and revealed intriguing new areas for further research. What types of connections are being made? What conversations are taking place—stories being told? What is the nature of the web that is being spun? Moreover, we might explore how one means of communication is selected over another, and whether the target audience or intended recipient is given any degree of influence over the way they are communicated to. Also, with communication media selection being largely elastic, as the costs for one method of communication increase (such as printing costs, teleconferencing fees, or cellular phone bills) alternate and cheaper methods of communicating are devised and adopted. (such as e-mail and the Intranet) However, it is not clear that the cheapest communication is able to convey the same message with the same “richness” of content. A follow-up study could gauge the impact and interpretation from the vantagepoint of the recipient, and measure whether the message received is interpreted as it was intended by its sender. This might further reveal the existence and effects of e-mail overload, and its implications on retention and workplace stress levels.

Additionally, this study did not take into account the impact of “Draconian” workplace monitoring efforts, and the potential that workplace communication may be hindered or altogether stifled by intrusive e-mail oversight within the company. As corporations intensify the monitoring and evaluation of employee e-mail, a new dimension of workplace uncertainty and mistrust is fostered. To make matters more complicated for companies and for their employees, archived and locally-stored e-mail messages are subject to review and subpoena by opposing counsel in the event of a lawsuit, adding yet another element to the desirability of e-mail as the preferred communication medium

Finally, another potential area for exploration would be a comparison and contrast of the corporate cultural differences between the acceptance and integration of e-mail and computer-mediated communication in each major organizational category. Such a study could isolate trends within each type of company, and allow for direct comparisons between government agencies, technology firms, service companies and other types of organizations. It might also further advance the media equation.

Today, in the post-industrial information age, the old categories and boundaries of communication are blurring. Business is being transformed and computer technology is liberating an atavistic human desire, the longing for connection through talk. This, in turn, is permitting us to see more ways to associate. It is incumbent upon communication scholars to research and explore this evolving phenomenon. While the questions we ask may not predict the future, they will help to create the future.

References

Auerbach, Jon G. (June 16, 1997). Getting the message: As e-mail booms, it is changing the frequency and texture of the way we communicate. The Wall Street Journal.

Bell, Chip R. & Harari, Oren. (2000). Beep! Beep! Competing in the age of the road runner. New York: Time Warner Books.

Clark, K., & Fujimoto, T. (1991). Product development performance: Strategy, organization and management in world auto industry. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Davenport, T. (1997). Information ecology: Mastering the information and knowledge environment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dizard, W. (1982). The coming information age. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Freiberger, Paul & Swaine, Michael. (2000). Fire in the valley. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gabbard, B., Anderson, R., & Bikson, T. (1997). Communication and e-mail: Information revolution analyses. RAND Center for Information Analysis (CIRA). Available at: http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR650/

Galle, Jr. William, Nelson, Beverly H., Luse, Donna W. & Villere, Maurice F. (1996). Business communication: A technology-based approach.. Chicago: Richard D. Irwin.

Houlder, V. (1997). Management failing to get the message: E-mail’s advantages could be lost by staff misusing it. Financial Times. Mar 16, 1997.

Kraut, R., Fish, R., Root, B., & Chalfonte, B. (1992). Informal communications in organizations. In R. Baecker (Ed.), Groupware and computer supported cooperative work (pp. 287 – 314). San Mateo, CA: Morgan Kaufman.

Levine, Rick, Locke, Christopher, Searls, Doc, & Weinberger, David. (2000). The cluetrain manifesto: The end of business as usual. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

McLaughlin, M., Osborne, K.,& Ellison, N. (1997). Virtual community in a telepresence environment. In S. Jones (Ed.), Virtual culture: Identity and communication in cybersociety (pp. 146 – 155). Salt Lake City: Publishers Press.

Nisbet, R. (1962). Community and power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reeves, Byron & Nass, Clifford. (1996). The media equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stoll, C. (1995). Silicon snake oil: Second thoughts on the information highway. New York: Doubleday.

Vault.com Survey: E-mail behavior in the workplace. May 2000. Available at: http://vault.com/vstore/SurveyResults/emailbehavior/email_behavior.cfm

Whitaker, S. & Sidner, C. (1997). Email overload: Exploring personal information management of email. Culture of the Internet. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Steve Uquhart graduated from Rollins College with a major in Organizational Communication and works as a Public Relations specialist with an emphasis on Internet connections and and the use of mediated technology in the workplace.

Rick Bommelje is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Rollins College, where he teaches listening and leadership. He is a national consultant to organizations on listening effectiveness and self-leadership. His research interests include listening and workplace effectiveness and self-actualized leadership in the postmodern organization.

Wallace V. Schmidt is Professor of Communication at Rollins College, where he teaches courses in organizational communication, intercultural communication, communication theory, and persuasion. He is the author of texts in public speaking, business and professional communication, and interviewing. He has presented papers at regional, national, and international conferences. His research interests include imaginative leadership in diverse organizational settings, alternative dispute resolution techniques, and crisis planning.

The Florida Communication Journal, Volume 30, Spring 2002, Pages 12-24.

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