At a glance
- The abrupt switch to widespread remote working in 2020 would have been impossible if not for digital technology.
- The many benefits of digital transformation are here to stay. However, research indicates technology can dehumanise interaction and collaboration.
- For digital productivity tools to drive long-term impact, it is important to combine them with face-to-face interaction and “analogue” ways of working.
By Nigel Bowen
The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the world’s workplaces, with many experts arguing several years’ worth of digital transformation was abruptly shoehorned into a six-month period in mid-2020.
The many efficiency-generating, cost-slashing, workplace-flexibility-promoting virtues of digital technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Asana have been well documented.
Yet, even as we excitedly embrace the world-changing digital tools at our fingertips, we have come to realise that technology alone cannot satisfy our deeply human emotional, social and creative needs.
The old-fashioned human brain
Dr James “Mac” Shine, a scientist with the University of Sydney’s Mind and Brain Centre, has spent all of his adult life studying brain activity patterns. He was also an early convert to remote working.
“In 2018 I did a fellowship at Stanford University,” he explains. “My wife is Texan, and she was staying with her family while I was meant to be based in California. To maximise my time with her and our kids, I kept flying down to Texas and remote working from there. Then, when we got back to Sydney, we had the choice of living in a small city apartment or buying a house near the beach on the Central Coast. We chose the beach house, which meant I continued to do a lot of remote working.”
However, Shine does not work remotely 100 per cent of the time, nor does he have plans to ever become an exclusive remote worker, even though the commute to his Sydney workplace involves a three-hour round trip.
“For all the benefits, remote working does have some drawbacks, and will continue to do so until the IT evolves and becomes less clunky,” he says. “Digital technology isn’t currently great at conveying what scientists call ‘non-explicit communication’ and what everyone else calls ‘body language’.
“In a real-world interaction, you can derive a lot of information from the way someone is sitting, the way they shake your hand, or a tiny lift of their eyebrow. People try to observe that non-explicit communication during Zoom calls and inevitably end up frustrated, which is why they get ‘Zoom fatigue’.”
Shine also warns about a more significant shortcoming of digital technology – especially for knowledge workers – namely that it doesn’t lend itself to “agenda-less creativity”.
“One of the more interesting things about the human brain is that it often produces breakthrough ideas when it’s not preoccupied with an issue,” Shine says.
“How often do you agonise over a problem for days, and then have an elegant solution pop into your head while you’re having a shower? Offices are, in part, designed to allow people to bump into each other and discuss what they are working on. It’s impossible to quantify, but countless scientific breakthroughs and, I assume, brilliant business ideas have arisen from serendipitous hallway catch-ups.”
Shine isn’t prescriptive about how much time colleagues should spend together, but he does believe there should be semi-regular face-to-face contact.
“Organisational missions differ and people differ,” he says. “I’m happy spending a lot of time alone reading and thinking and, in fact, need to do that to produce anything worthwhile. But, barring COVID-19 shutdowns, I always spend one or two days a week in my workplace. I make sure I spend a lot of time with my students and colleagues on those days. I hope that benefits their creative process, and I know it benefits mine.”
Digital minds, analogue hearts
Anders Sörman-Nilsson is a futurist who has written several books about digital transformation, most notably Digilogue: How to Win the Digital Minds and Analogue Hearts of Tomorrow’s Customers.
“COVID-19 has created a burning platform, speeding up the embrace of videoconferencing and workplace-collaboration platforms among late adopters,” he observes. “By and large, that’s a good thing. However, business owners and managers need to realise digital technology is literally dehumanising, in that it obviates the need for real-world human interaction.
That’s great for infection control. But it’s not so good when you’re trying to build a strong corporate culture, or encourage collaboration, or create opportunities for early career staff to learn from their more experienced colleagues.”
How do employers encourage workers to feel a sense of belonging and collaborate with their colleagues in increasingly digitalised workplaces?
Sörman-Nilsson argues it is a matter of not being too entranced by shiny new technologies and the purely digital interactions they so efficiently facilitate.
“Dating apps are efficient – they provide near-frictionless access to a deep pool of potential partners,” Sörman-Nilsson says. “But nobody wants to just message via an app; the goal is to meet up and see if there is any chemistry.
“Likewise, Zoom is efficient – with a few keyboard strokes you can see and hear another person wherever they are in the world, but it’s difficult to build deep relationships on a videoconferencing platform. Sometimes you don’t need to create a deep connection, and those digital interactions are sufficient. But if it is, or could become, a significant business relationship, I always try to set up a real-world meeting.”
Learning from the early adopters
Babak Abedin used to work in IT and management consulting, and now is an associate professor of business analytics at Macquarie University. He recommends that late-adopting businesses learn from early adopting tech companies. “It’s telling that those who’ve been immersed in digital technology for the longest are the most careful about how and when they use it,” he says.
“Google and many other tech companies have found their brainstorming sessions work best if they gather the relevant staff together, either in a conference room or off-site location,” Abedin continues. “The participants then scribble down as many ideas as they can think of using a pen and paper, or post-it notes, before volunteering their most promising ideas, which are written on a whiteboard and discussed.
“No doubt those companies have experimented with email brainstorming and workplace-chat-app brainstorming and videoconferencing brainstorming, and discovered that the digital approach isn’t superior to the old-fashioned way of doing things.”
Sörman-Nilsson, whose client list includes Apple, Cisco and SAP, points out digital economy companies go to great lengths to encourage their staff to interact non-digitally.
“Even if companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter allow remote working – and most of them do – they invest heavily in making their workplaces as enticing as possible,” he says.
It is also worth noting that many tech companies with exclusively remote workforces spend a lot of money flying those remote workers to a central location at least once a year. Zapier is one business that is well known for doing this. Wade Foster, one of its co-founders, has noted, “Some things are just better done in person.
For instance, it’s hard to...shoot the breeze about some random idea you’ve had about improving a secondary process in the company, or sit down and talk about company values. All those things tend to naturally happen in person, while they don’t happen in a remote team.”
Combining tech with a personal touch
Technology journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald Adam Turner says, “digital productivity tools have revolutionised the business world”, but quickly adds that people – even tech writers – crave human connection as well as efficient service.
“I recently set up a family trust,” Turner says. “It would have been maximally efficient for my accountant just to email me the necessary documentation. It would have been quickest for me to just read that documentation on my laptop at home. But I went to his office, where he spent a considerable amount of time scribbling on a whiteboard and explaining the finer points of family trust arrangements to me.
“Arguably, it wasn’t the most efficient use of his time, but that personal interaction resulted in us having a stronger relationship. I’m now more confident that I’m in good hands and more likely to remain a loyal customer.”
Physical creatures in a physical world
In 2016, David Sax released The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. In the book, Sax ponders why humans still collect vinyl records, read dead-tree books, print out hard copies of documents stored on their computer, sit in cinemas to watch films and, yes, endure often significant inconvenience to meet customers face-to-face and work alongside colleagues in the same physical space.
Sax argues that those getting caught up in the “all-digital-all-the-time” mindset are making the rookie mistake of assuming that the emergence of new technologies results in the rapid extinction of pre-existing ones.
“The fundamental danger is extrapolating the exponential growth of technology out into everything in the world,” Sax says. “It’s that mindset of, ‘My meetings are now on Zoom, so therefore the office and meetings and people are dead’. This binary notion that something is either one way or another – ‘retail is dead’, ‘vinyl is dead’, ‘in-person school is dead’ – crops up time and again. It’s wrong, because it misses the subtlety of the world and the fact that people want it ALL.
“We want stores and e-commerce, restaurants and home delivery, offices and working from home. Not one. Not the other. Both. Because both options work in different ways, at different times.
“As long as we remain physical creatures in a physical world, we will value analogue interactions differently, and often more importantly, than those that are purely digital. The pandemic will end, sooner rather than later, I hope, and we will rush back to conferences, parties, restaurants, stores and even boring meetings.”