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The Boston Globe
Balancing Acts

After 125 years of electronic relations, workplaces face a growing disconnect

By Maggie Jackson, Globe Correspondent, 12/19/04


Globe Photo/Patricia McDonnell
The Boston Public Library's copy of "Wired Love" by Ella Cheever Thayer.

Nattie and Clem, who work in separate offices of the same company, strike up a banter that becomes flirtatious.

Between deadlines, they tease each other, laugh at the misunderstandings that result from their virtual friendship - and wonder uneasily what the other is really like. But when they meet, they're so tongue-tied that they quickly go back to their faceless chatter.

Sound familiar? Nattie and Clem could be your cubicle neighbors. But they are fictional telegraph operators, communicating via Morse code in the startlingly powerful 1879 novel, ''Wired Love.'' The author, Ella Cheever Thayer, was a Boston telegraph operator who long ago understood the pros and cons of the electronic relations we've grown to depend on.

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We think virtual work is new, but early telegraph and telephone users stumbled upon the same glitches and etiquette quandaries that plague us today. The difference is that they were tiptoeing into this new world. We increasingly rely on cyber-relations, which often are a pale substitute for face-to-face contact. We should be wary. Just how faceless do we want our bonds with colleagues, family, and friends to be?

''It never occurred to [Nattie and Clem] that they knew really nothing about each other,'' writes Thayer, who worked as an operator at the now-defunct Hotel Brunswick. Today, only 17 percent of employees for the most part work and deal with people in one office, reports WFD Consulting in Watertown. And yet the growing armies of road warriors, virtual team members, and teleworkers get far too little guidance on managing faceless relations. Only 25 percent of people at midsize to large companies say they have access to training about working off-site, says WFD.

E-mail and the like are alluring, promising, easy familiarity, yet a growing body of research shows that distance isn't as easy to overcome as we think.

''It's substantially harder to build and maintain social relations electronically than it is in person,'' says Robert Kraut, professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. For instance, rates of communication fall sharply as distance increases, even within the same building. When Kraut studied scientists, all heavy e-mail users, at a large research and development company, he found that they were 27 times more likely to publish research together if they had offices on the same hallway than if they were working on different floors.

Misunderstandings abound in the virtual world. E-mail and instant messages lack voice, tone, and body language, and employees ''tend to play it fast and loose with language,'' says Nancy Flynn, head of the ePolicy Institute, a training and consulting firm.

That's one reason why 20 percent of companies have had employee e-mail subpoenaed during a lawsuit or investigation, up from 14 percent in 2003, according to a 2004 survey by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association. As workforces become more diffused, companies are sensing an increasing sense of disconnection. Yet on-the-job relations won't strengthen by throwing more ''virtuality'' into the workplace, as many companies are doing via e-mentoring, e-training, and even virtual support groups.

IBM is taking a thoughtful approach to restoring lost cohesiveness. Its year-old campaign, ''Making IBM Feel Small Again,'' aims to promote face-to-face contacts. For instance, traveling employees can tap ''IBM Club'' websites to learn about local company social events in their destination city.

''We want to have the right balance'' says spokesman Jim Sinocchi.

To strike that balance, it's crucial to revisit our age-old assumptions that technology always represents a step forward. There is a limit to what we can expect from faceless relations, as Ella Thayer knew so well a century before e-mail and instant messaging.

Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at .

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