Maggie Jackson | Balancing Acts

Pushing face time in the digital age

Troy Jackson (center), and Gitti Crowley interact with other HiWired executives during a recent lunch.
Troy Jackson (center), and Gitti Crowley interact with other HiWired executives during a recent lunch. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

For all our crackling connectivity in a virtual, mobile world, we don't always really connect. Unresolved e-mails and phone messages bounce back and forth. Conversations from the road get cut off. You're out on Fridays, when I need to reach you. I'm flying to LA on Monday when you are free to talk.

That's why some progressive bosses are counterbalancing the diffusion of the digital age with innovative efforts to boost face-to-face and real-time connections. They're mandating no travel or no e-mail days, or making flesh-and-blood connections a new priority. The results are sometimes surprising - less stress, more learning, even better balance at home.

"We embrace chat and e-mail and collaboration tools," says Singu Srinivas, copresident of Needham's HiWired, a technology support start-up with 60 employees. "Those are additives to face-to-face relationship building, but they can't be a replacement for it."

To ensure their executive team fully bonded and connected on company strategy, Srinivas and copresident Michael Wexler instituted "Home Week" - a week each month when no boss can travel - when they founded the company three years ago.

During Home Week, there is a lunch for the 10-member management team and a "deep-dive" executive planning meeting, plus a companywide pub night and daytime outing, such as last week's afternoon spent maintaining trails at the Needham town forest. If an executive feels a dire need to be away, they must get approval from Wexler or Srinivas - an exemption granted just a handful of times.

But managers like the idea, not least because it gives road warriors like Chris Hooven, senior director of business development, more time at home. During Home Week, Hooven can attend soccer games or other school events for his three children, ages 12, 14, and 17.

"It's a lot more fun being there," says Hooven, who normally travels half of his work time. Srinivas usually goes home for lunch on Fridays during Home Week to eat with his two children, ages six and three.

North Hampton, N.H. workplace consultant J.T. O'Donnell says she's hearing more about such innovations. Bosses are saying, if you have a problem, pick up the phone or meet. Stay away from long-winded e-mails.

"Companies are realizing that they have got to not replace all their face-to-face interactions, communications, and training with virtual to save money," says O'Donnell. "It's the loss of what we can't convey in e-mail and tech communications that's hurting us."

During a recently completed 18-month internal reassessment, the nonprofit Third Sector New England heard again and again from staff: It's hard to align our work when we don't see one another, says Lyn Freundlich, director of human resources at the organization, which helps other nonprofits work more effectively. Many of the organization's 32 employees work part-time or partly from home, and many travel.

So Third Sector has created "brown bag" lunch talks led by staff, and set aside more time for employees to train across a variety of departments, says Freundlich. "We need opportunities to learn from one another."

Boosting face time can even reduce stress, says Jay Ellison, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Chicago's U.S. Cellular. In 2004, Ellison banned e-mail on Fridays at the 8,000-employee wireless carrier to promote nonvirtual communications. "Get out to meet your teams face to face. Pick up the phone and give someone a call," he wrote in his original message. Three years later, Ellison says the ban promotes better relationships and gives people a break from being tethered to their computers. "It's a stress reliever. I don't have to go back to my computer every 20 minutes on Fridays to check e-mail," he says.

E-mail, of course, isn't disappearing, and a range of improving technologies, such as live telecasting or work-sharing software, will allow people to connect virtually in richer ways. Still, no technology can ever replace in-person connections.

At Abbott Laboratories, outside Chicago, work is often virtual - and flexible. Sixty percent of the global healthcare company's 60,000 employees telework at least sometimes and many work flexibly in other ways. So real-time, facetime connections have taken on a new priority.

At a nutrition research and development unit in Columbus, Ohio, where 75 percent of the employees work flexibly, staff all must work in the office on Wednesdays. Big company divisional meetings are now simulcast live - but to employees gathered together at different sites. One day a year, chief executive Miles White holds a series of meetings to bring together as many employees as possible - in person.

"As there have been more opportunities to disconnect, Abbot has done a lot of things to encourage and facilitate more face-to-face connectedness and interaction," says spokeswoman Ann Fahey-Widman. "There is a renewed commitment and understanding of how important that connectedness is to our culture and company."

Perhaps we should all take a page from the corporate world, and schedule times to shelve our cellphones and PDAs and reconnect - with family and friends. Eye contact, hugs, and smiles are miracles of nature that can't be e-mailed.

Maggie Jackson, author of What's Happening to Home: Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age, can be reached at maggie.jackson@att.net.