Look at Me: Making the Case for Eye Contact at Work

New research suggests that mobile devices are increasingly interfering with the eye contact we make with others and ultimately can affect the emotional connections we make at work.

Since the dawn of the smartphone it’s become common to see a table full of restaurant diners immersed in their gadgets rather than conversation. Or, since tablets came into the picture, a conference table full of coworkers looking at their iPads rather than each other.

Looking at a colleague when speaking conveys confidence and respect.

Eye contact is becoming extinct.

This was the premise of a recent Wall Street Journal article by columnist Sue Shellenbarger, who explored the “workplace perils” of the decline in looking each other in the eye.

Shellenbarger cited recent research findings from the communications-analytics company Quantified Impressions, which found that during an average conversation, adults are making eye contact about 30 to 60 percent of the time.

On the surface that seems reasonable, especially considering most people aren’t consciously clocking how much they’re eyeing each other. But in its study of about 3,000 individuals, Quantified Impressions noted that people should be making eye contact about 60 to 70 percent of the time in order to establish emotional connection—a pretty impressive gap.

For 20-somethings, for example, “it’s almost become culturally acceptable to answer that phone at dinner, or to glance down at the baseball scores,” Noah Zandan, president of Quantified Impressions, told Shellenbarger.

A lack of eye contact plays into workplace dynamics, too.

Sixty-four percent of CIOs believe an increase in mobile device use at work has led to breaches in workplace etiquette, according to a recent survey of more than 2,300 technology leaders by IT staffing company Robert Half Technology.

Admittedly, it is hard to ignore the constant pinging of email and text messages. Given the pressure to be “on” all the time that comes with the convenience of mobile devices, people often feel compelled to answer messages immediately (including when they are in the middle of a conversation).

At the same time, as remote working or teleworking increases, people are adapting to fewer face-to-face interactions and subsequently less eye contact, Shellenbarger wrote.

Some businesses are reevaluating the importance of this type of connection, however. Yahoo, for example, cited in-person collaboration as one of the main reasons behind its decision to discontinue its teleworking policy earlier this year.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” wrote Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s executive vice president of people and development, in an internal memo.

Face-to-face interaction is also a large part of the argument for in-person meetings and conferences. Recent research suggests that face-to-face meetings outperform other meeting formats in terms of generating new ideas.

But what if we’re meeting or working “face-to-face” only to be consumed with our digital devices? What are we missing?

“Looking at a colleague when speaking conveys confidence and respect,” Shellenbarger wrote.

Nonverbal communication skills, including eye contact, are critical to good emotional intelligence. How you communicate is often just as important as what you are communicating. And emotional intelligence can go a long way in increasing job performance and engagement.

In a survey of more than 2,600 HR professionals and hiring managers, found that 71 percent said they valued emotional intelligence (EQ) more than IQ, and 75 percent said they are more likely to promote someone with high EQ compared to high IQ.

All this is to say: You may want to get your eye contact in now, because pretty soon we may all be wearing Google glasses. At that point we may be so distracted by what we’re seeing in the virtual nethersphere that genuine eye contact really does become extinct.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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