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Digital proximity in the professional world

Despite all the digitization today, many people still prefer to sit and work in an office with their colleagues. Physical proximity creates an atmosphere of trust, shows others that I can be reached personally and am working on the same project. Many people miss these concrete aspects of interaction when someone is not working on-site. The home office does not enjoy a particularly good reputation because of doubts about employee productivity or because workers feel cut off from the information flow at the company.

Many employees cannot even imagine accepting a work-from-home position. Somehow they would feel shunted out of the way. Nevertheless, professional life has changed rapidly over the past decades. It is no longer an issue of technological infrastructure or whether people can be reached by telephone. In general, both are easily achieved.

Virtually at work

Without our having noticed it, our workplaces have long been virtualized. We spend increasingly less time on the telephone and more exchanging short messages with our colleagues via the instant messenger of our choice or a company’s internal network. Whereas direct online conversation (with or without video) still tended to be rather private at the start of the century, it has long been transformed into a business tool that professionals are happy to use for internal and external co-operation. In customer service, it is very well-suited for maintaining contact with customers.

Chatting in Enterprise 2.0 may be fast and efficient but for many it is still strange, and common in only a few companies here at home. However, the technologies used by only a few in today’s companies will be second nature to all “knowledge workers” in just a few years.

Today, we already spend the largest portion of our working hours communicating with people neither heard nor seen directly. We reach our contacts and cultivate them using Xing, LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. In the future, a variety of new tools will make co-operating even easier. Slack, for example, gives a brief foretaste of what’s coming. This tool not only makes internal communications efficient, it lets them be more closely tailored to staff needs. It allows workers to exchange data and communications directly but it also lets them to do something of major importance: establish a sense of personal proximity to other employees.

The human touch

While many modern communication tools do offer practical advantages, something of special importance to people is often forgotten. As practical as a home office can be, we don’t always want to sit home alone in front of a computer and work through a bunch of tasks. As social creatures, we want to be perceived by our colleagues, partners and customers. In digital life, that is lacking.

When we meet each other in a room, we are already communicating a wealth of information without words, information that is difficult to represent over digital channels. Even videos only capture a fraction of the informal signals that are exchanged through personal presence. We sense each other, smell each other. It is difficult to reproduce this sense of proximity online.

Moreover, social behavior is not easily transferred to the digital sphere. When we make comments there internally or externally, we have to learn how to handle the responses. Most people are familiar with this form of public criticism at most from electronic mail. Only a few people can handle being criticized in front of others on a huge e-mail distribution list. In general, it is not easy to be in the digital public eye.

Your digital self

People entering professional life today have already gained some experience in social networks, know how to act on Facebook and Whatsapp and can use these behaviors in the digital world of work. The digital world has also long been a social sphere and is increasingly losing its abstraction. The more we communicate with each other online, the easier it is for us to approach one another and even to create a sense of digital closeness.

A culture of appreciation here is increasingly important, one in which digital proximity is viewed as an opportunity instead of a risk. When I follow someone online on such platforms as Twitter or Facebook, I learn a lot about their digital personality. People who only talk (write) about themselves and fail to make favorable mention of others should not be surprised when they receive not a single personal response. It is worthwhile to “like” others, retweet their comments and say a public thank you online. This creates a digital profile that often mirrors our real world behavior. It makes it easier for us to classify people and develop a rudimentary understanding of them. That automatically generates a certain sense of proximity, one that arises on the basis of soft data.

Online personalities

The more that individual people reveal about themselves online, the easier it is to be close to them. When we take a selfie, it is a snapshot that represents us. Each image of us creates a digital counterpart that makes us more approachable. Social networks that ascribe importance to the profile image benefit here. I personally find it difficult to place my digital trust in a cat or a dog. The more truthfully that we present ourselves online, the easier it is for us to expand our networks both online and offline. Recognition is very important in this regard for cementing a relationship and building trust.

People who fear online public life are likely to have a difficult time in the future.

Showing personality and empathy are important prerequisites to working successfully in the digital world. In normal (offline) conversations, I share something personal or tell secrets to create a sense of closeness and even friendship. Each time I decide for myself how far I want to take someone into my confidence. Of course, I also give thought to such things in digital public spaces. In the final analysis, the professional world stands before an enormous cultural change, one in which we will have to learn how to communicate personally and sometimes publicly with our stakeholders.

We have to become more human online, approach others and reveal ourselves. The technology is available. Often however the human factor is lacking. As communicative creatures, we have to learn how to maintain better contact with each other online and be friendly – in order have greater freedom from fear. People who fear online public life are likely to have a difficult time in the future. In companies, teams have been digital for quite some time now. If you don’t show up in the digital sphere, you didn’t happen. Our identity is imparted a digital image that will act as our representative and filter. Anyone can approach our digital twin but they have to be clear about their concerns so that they get through and maybe even create a sense of digital proximity.

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