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Career Coach

Email backlash at the office?

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

HAL 9000 was an all-knowing computer system that performed human functions. (Warner Bros)

HAL 9000 was an all-knowing computer system that performed human functions and interacted with people as if alive, in the movie series 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Warner Bros)

Procure Plus Ltd’s 40 employees had virtually stopped getting up from their desks to speak to one another — and Mike Brogan, president of the in Manchester UK housing consortium didn’t like what he saw.

The habit of doing everything from the comfort of their desk chairs wasn’t good for the employees, he thought, and he was sure it wasn’t good for the company’s bottom line.

So, with the help of Cary Cooper, an organisational psychology and health professor at Lancaster University in the UK, Brogan implemented a few new rules. Among them: using email only when an alternative like picking up the phone or bringing it up in a meeting cannot reasonably and effectively be used; always walking to a colleague’s desk or ringing them up before resorting to an email; and not copying people on emails unless you need them to do something.

It might seem an antiquated idea in the modern day workplace, where technology has practically taken over. But, in a bit of a backlash against the impersonal, both employees and employers are recognising the value of more human interaction. Many companies and workers are finding ways to bring face-to-face or other personal interaction back to jobs that have become less so, or are building it into ones that never required much communication. 

But even if your company isn’t experimenting with more ways to interact, for your own career development, you should make it happen for yourself. The more you are seen in the office and the more you interact with managers face-to-face, the better the chance they will remember you when it comes time for an important project or promotion. Email alone can only take you so far.

Meaningful results 

The experiment at Procure Plus was scheduled to last only a week  — but, even in that short time, the results were “very impressive,” according to Brogan. There was 50% reduction in email traffic and “more of a buzz around the office,” he wrote in an email. The rules have since been put in place permanently.

“[We had] people reporting that they preferred sitting down and talking to people, rather than pinging messages dispassionately,” Brogan said. “This was a tangible recognition of the value of their time to us and them, and they appreciated that.”

For Katie Taylor, the company’s business support manager, it took some time to get used to the rules. “Emailing people is something that has become so natural,” she wrote in an email to Career Coach. “At first, I really had to concentrate to remember to pick up the phone or go and speak to someone at their desk.”

Power of chatting

In-person interactions and informal exchanges are key to employees’ happiness and productiveness, said Ben Waber, president and CEO of Boston-based management services firm Sociometric Solutions.

“Making time to talk to colleagues is hugely important,” he said. “Face-to-face interactions are the most important thing that goes on at work.”

Even small efforts can help. In the UK, the Liverpool City Council made Wednesdays “email free” and mobile phone retailer Phones 4U banned the use of internal email. “These organisations could see the value of social interaction and team building among the staff in encouraging staff to do more face-to-face communications,” wrote Lancaster University’s Cooper in an email.

Up to you

If social interactions aren’t built into your job, it is up to you to make them happen. For starters, you could recommend email free time periods or experiments like the one at Procure Plus to your bosses.

But if that doesn’t fly, you can at least improve human interaction for yourself. Your goal: to “maximise serendipity,” according to Waber. “If you don’t have to sit at your desk, go sit in front of the coffee machine and people will talk to you. Park yourself in a highly trafficked area and you are going to bump into people.”

Waber practices what he preaches. His company has two offices, one in Boston and one in Silicon Valley, and Waber, who is based in Boston, has a number of direct reports in the California office. Every day, he picks up the phone and gives each one of them a quick call.

“It’s not a meeting,” he said. “It’s setting time aside for social interaction. You really need to make that effort.”

Get outside

For people who telecommute, lack of interaction can be a real problem, according to Kimberly Young, founder of the New York-based Center for Internet Addiction. “Sometimes, changing jobs isn't possible with the downturn in the job market so [you] need to find social outlets,” she said.

Join walking groups, clubs, or social groups, she suggested, or take up a hobby or take a class at the local college. And during the day, do what you can to get out and interact with people. “Work at Starbucks instead of sitting alone at home,” said Young.

Face-to-face interactions do make a difference. “People now have a greater appreciation of the fact that you get more out of having a conversation with someone rather than just an email exchange,” said Taylor of Procure Plus, “and that it's also a nicer experience to actually have a conversation.”

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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Both employees and employers are recognising the value of more human interaction.