Everytime we interact as humans our bodies are ready for the interaction to become a threat. The fight or flight response is our bodies' unique way of trying to protect us in threatening situations; flooding the body with chemicals that will either help us fight our way out of the situation or flee from it.  

Digital technology is fundamentally changing how humans interact and the Digital Workplace is significantly changing how businesses interact. The excellent post by Paul Bray from Computacenter below starts to look at some of these challenges. This applies internally within the workforce; externally with partners and vendors; and also with interactions with clients. While these new ways of working can bring new efficiencies and opportunities, they also present challenges. 

One of the main challenges is how do we effectively communicate in a way our bodies and brains weren't designed to do? Evolution prepared us to deal with direct threats to our life. Evolution has yet to catch up with dealing with less tangible threats to our interests but our bodies react in the same way. This can often lead to messages being taken out of context and conflict developing where it wasn't intended or necessary.

Finding strategies to avoid triggering the fight or flight response in the Digital Workplace is key if we want to influence a successful outcome for us and our clients.

Understanding What We're Missing With Digital Communication

The human brain is highly adept at picking up signals from another person that they may be unaware they are transmitting. This could be a facial expression showing an emotional reaction to something that was said, a change in tone or pitch of voice or a slight shift in body position. 

Different digital ways of working can communicate different levels of information, all of them missing some elements that would exist in a face to face encounter. Video enabled chat allows you see the facial reactions of the person you are communicating with but not necessarily the body posture or the wider context of the environment away from the camera. Voice calls allow you to hear the tone and pitch of the voice but now you are missing out on facial expressions. Long form electronic messaging forces you to actively add contextual information that would usually be given by the tone or pitch of your voice. Short form electronic messages such as IM or Twitter often encourages or forces us to minimise the information we're transmitting to the smallest amount. Workflow notifications that a document has been rejected won't even contain the context given by a short form IM.

To deal with this we should consciously consider what information isn't being communicated by the digital platform that we're using. This applies both to what we're trying to convey and the information that we're receiving. Asking yourself what is being missed can allow you clarify communication points and prevent misundertanding.

Provide Additional Context

Filling in the communication gaps will depend on the communication medium. Emoticons were originally designed to convey emotional context in the 140 characters of an SMS and while they may not always be appropriate they certainly do a job. If they're not appropriate then clearly articulating an emotional message in your communication can help avoid triggering a fight or flight response. 

"What's wrong with the proposal?" can be heard as "You're an idiot if you think there's anything wrong with the proposal." With additional emotional context the message might look something like "I'm really eager to get this proposal right for you. Can you help by providing feedback to improve it?" 

Ask Questions

If there is room for miscommunication then asking effective questions can clarify and remove the confusion. Taking responsibility for the misunderstanding here can also avoid the other person feeling that they are to blame for it. "I'm sorry I don't quite understand what you meant by X can you please clarify Y and Z for me" is less threatening than "It's not clear what you mean by X."


The remoteness of digital communication can make empathy more difficult to achieve. Not being in the room with the other person not only means reduced information but also a reduced sense of wanting to understand them. Consciously asking yourself - "How will the other person be feeling about this interaction?" can help to mitigate this. It might also highlight to us that we don't actually know how the other person might be feeling about the interaction and then ask them!

Despite our best efforts at communicating effectively in the Digital Workplace there will come times when this just isn't working. Understanding when to go non-digital is a key skill in itself and maximising opportunities and time can sometimes only be achieved face to face.