It's no secret that technology has revolutionized our ability to communicate across space, time, culture and language, but it has also been instrumental in disconnecting us from people just a desk away. At the office, we check email during meetings, we eat alone at our desks and we forgo the water cooler for digital chatrooms.
In fact, Cornerstone's recent State of Workplace Productivity Report found that 39 percent of employees think communicating by email or instant messenger is more productive than speaking on the phone or in person—a number bound to increase as technology becomes even more integrated in our daily lives at work and home.
But communicating entirely with digital applications is far from perfect. It can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding, because it's hard to express social cues and tone when all you see is words on a screen.
That's why a new crop of startups and artificial intelligence designers are attempting to bridge these disconnects by creating technology to help you communicate more effectively with coworkers online. Here, we look at three tools that may have the potential to revolutionize our digital interactions—whether you're just a desk or an entire ocean apart.
Write Better Emails with Crystal
The Crystal app uses personal data publicly available online—such as your LinkedIn profile—to create personality profiles for you and your contacts. It then offers guidelines on how to effectively communicate based on your coworker's personality type. These profiles can tell you things like whether a person prefers an informal tone or formal tone, and whether your recipient likes you to get right to the point or start with a little small talk.
An added benefit of Crystal is the ability to install a plugin for Gmail that essentially works like spell check for empathetic communication. As you draft an email to a colleague, the app will suggest changes to your message in real time, so you can personalize each message to recipient for the best possible response.
Photo: Example from Crystal website
Stay in Touch with Colleagues with Conspire
Another app that can help you fine tune how you interact with your contact list is Conspire. Once you link the app with your email account, it goes to work analyzing your email habits and recent conversation rates with your contacts. It generates a weekly report with insightful details: who you email most often, who emails you most often, how often you respond, how often they respond, who you've lost touch with, etc. For instance, the tool may report that your email response rate to your boss is 45 percent, but her response rate to you is 95 percent—in other words, it's time to work on those communication skills. Or, Conspire will tell you who you're losing touch with: While you usually email your mentor every 14 days, you haven't talked to her in 40—so, it's time to check in.
Conspire also offers a networking component, but instead of seeking out and “befriending" connections like you do on a social network, Conspire shows you relevant people who communicate with the people you talk to, and offers to facilitate an introduction via email.
Photo: Examples from Conspires Weekly Report
Check Your Tone with IBM Watson
IBM's Watson is one of the most visible and famous artificial intelligence projects—you may have seen the supercomputer crush reining champions on the trivia show Jeopardy. And while its Tone Analyzer is not an app designed to address a specific communication need, it is an example of how artificial intelligence software is becoming sophisticated enough to glean tone and emotion from humans' written words—no small feat.
Try it for yourself by feeding it a writing sample—perhaps that project update email you're about to send to your boss—and it just might help decode whether your confidence comes off as rude, or your conscientiousness reads as too tentative.
Photo: Example from IBM Watson's Tone Analyzer
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