Is technology severing the human connection in the workplace?

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So many new technologies have emerged in the past decade — and so many more are in the process of emerging — that it’s easy to miss larger trends amid this constant stream of new devices, collaboration platforms, cloud-based services, and other products of the digital era that are transforming the workplace.

But they are there. Over at Forbes, contributor Louis Efron discusses “three future workplace realities you must be prepared for.” The first two realities, are frequent topics I cover frequently — artificial intelligence (AI) and working remotely. “AI is poised to transform human communication in many ways,” but enterprise workers “will need to become comfortable with the idea of AI delivering performance feedback, personal development, coaching and evaluation,” Efron writes, adding that remote workers will “need to adapt their remote workspaces for maximum effectiveness and learn video basics to ensure their talent is noticed.”

The third item on the list is fascinating — and critically important. Efron warns that our increasing reliance on and interaction with technology may be causing us to lose our humanity.

“In the future, much loneliness may derive from the void of meaningful human interaction created by our partnership with human-like machines or virtual organizations,” he writes. “As great as chatbots, social media and video screens can be, they don’t replace our basic need for human intimacy—most of these tech platforms offer superficial connections at most.”

How humans cope with isolation is a favorite topic of science-fiction writers, and is of no small interest to NASA and some of the private space ventures with plans (and even timelines) for sending colonizers to Mars. What challenges and pressures will prolonged isolation from family, friends, and the larger “tribe” bring to bear on our psyches? How will we cope?

Those aren’t just questions for space travelers; enterprise leaders and workers need to recognize the downside of less human physical presence and interaction on morale, productivity, and team cohesion.

“Finding ways to connect with others will be critical for our mental and emotional well-being,” Efron argues. “To ensure these connections, workers of the future will need to seek out and plan for meaningful interactions beyond texts, email and social media. Scheduling regular lunches with co-workers, friends or family who are close by, visiting your company offices, if they exist, or joining social clubs that meet in person are ways to build and maintain important personal connections.”

Great advice! The trick, though, is to get people to actually do those things. Many of us will convince ourselves that we are too busy to socialize, just as we tell ourselves we’re too busy to exercise. But as a longtime remote worker, I can assure you that seeking out human interaction is essential to your mental well-being. That’s why I make a point of working from a busy local coffee shop where I frequently see friends and acquaintances. The time lost to chatting is more than made up for by my renewed energy level and focus once I get back behind the keyboard.

Psychologist Susan Pinker gave a fascinating TED Talk in which she discussed her research into the key factors determining human longevity. Exercise, quitting smoking and drinking, and getting a flu vaccine certainly are on the list, but they’re not at the top.

No. 2 is “close relationships.” As Pinker explains, “These are the people that you can call on for a loan if you need money suddenly, who will call the doctor if you’re not feeling well or take you to the hospital, or will sit with you if you’re having an existential crisis, if you’re in despair.”

What could be more important to longevity than close relationships? Pinker herself says she is surprised by the answer: social integration.

“This means how much you interact with people as you move through your day,” she says. “How many people do you talk to? And these mean both your weak and strong bonds, so not just the people you’re really close to, who mean a lot to you, but, like, do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Do you play bridge or poker, or have a book club? Those interactions are one of the strongest predictors of how long you’ll live.”

Pinker is talking about face-to-face interaction, not texting, Skype, or FaceTime, none of which are going to give you the dopamine boost you get from shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eye, or patting them on the back.

I’m not sure how much enterprise leaders can do to encourage social integration as our workforce becomes more remote and disconnected. Some may not even make the connection between social well-being and productivity; others may opt to outsource the problem to robots. But they ignore the problem at their own peril. Even their virtual assistants will tell them that.

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