7 ways to bring back human connection in a digital world

7 ways to bring back human connection in a digital world

James Silk
by James Silk

How can we bring human connection back into our lives?

As we have already discussed here, the increased prevalence of digital technology has gradually eroded human connection, proving detrimental to many elements of our social and working lives. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Digital technology has, in many ways, made our lives far easier and more enjoyable. However, we need to change the way that we design our products, our services, and our workplaces to bring back the human connection – there are several ways we can do this.

When designing products and processes:

  1. Deploy humans at the point of greatest need. Almost all processes contain at least one human element. For the greatest impact, this human element should be deployed at the point of greatest customer or user need. A great example of this is in some Japanese railway stations, where if a customer is struggling to purchase a ticket, a human operator pops out of a panel in the wall and offers assistance. Additionally, something called the Scarcity Principle means that as we get fewer and fewer human interactions in our lives, we place a higher value on those that we do get. Organisations should be jumping at this opportunity to surprise and delight customers.
  1. Engage a cohort of super-users, in-person where possible – Most tech products have ways of collating user feedback through digital channels. For instance, by including ‘shake to report an issue’ functionality, or tracking app usage data down to every swipe, click and tap. However, this data misses out on key elements of human interaction with the product. No amount of usage data could tell Google that people felt uncomfortable being in front of someone wearing their Google Glass product, so much so that many bouncers in the US banned people from wearing them in bars and clubs.
  1. Design for users first, technology second – All too often do we see products designed around the technology itself, with the user experience becoming an afterthought. As we mentioned, much of the technology we use today (primarily our phones) assumes we need a constant flow of interruptions, but that isn’t ultimately what the user wants or needs. To alleviate this poor product design we can apply something called the Calm Technology Principles, which focus primarily on creating technology that remains in the user’s periphery rather than taking centre of attention. We are starting to see good examples of this in wearables design, but the best use cases lie in automotive design. Vehicle cabins are designed so as not to distract drivers from the road, so include things such as dashboards that subtly glow different colours when a car is being driven economically or aggressively.
  1. Allow flexibility in the human elements – When developing processes, it is important to make sure any human elements remain just that … human. When the Dorchester Hotel Group carried out their digital transformation, they gave all hotel staff iPads with checklists they had to tick off as they went about their workday. The problem was that the lists were very prescriptive, for instance requiring reception staff to maintain exactly 3 seconds of eye contact with approaching guests, no more, no less. The net effect was stressed out staff, and hotel guests that felt uncomfortable. In the end, the hotel decided to direct staff to treat all guests with the simple guidance to imagine that they were helping someone famous. With human elements, it is far better to lead with context rather than control.

When designing organisations:

  1. Make it measurable – Opening up organisational metrics to employees makes them feel more aligned to the larger goals, and therefore more motivated. This can also help improve feelings of trust and security in an organisation. However, we need to rethink what we measure. Many of the old metrics for business output are no longer relevant in the virtual world. Things like Time and Materials measures aren’t particularly useful when people can respond to emails on their phone, wherever and whenever they like. Given what we discussed earlier on the impacts in the workplace, we should also start to measure things like employee engagement and wellbeing. Many tools are cropping up in this area, and lots integrate directly with collaboration software like Microsoft Teams and Slack.
  1. Break down organisation silos – We should encourage employees not just to stay in their lane, but to explore other lanes. This not only makes employees feel more engaged in the outcome of the organisation, but also opens the door for innovation and gives a greater diversity of ideas. It is often easier said than done, but there are a few ways to remove silos: setting up regular cross-functional working groups to solve specific problems, make training and all ‘extra-curricular’ activities cross-functional, or just set aside time in employees diaries to have open discussions with people from other teams. This can go even further by redesigning org structures into a matrix organisation, whereby individuals report in to 2 or more functions.
  1. Empower employees to make decisions – To improve the speed of change and innovation, and truly unlock the potential of digital transformation, organisations need to empower all individuals to make decisions, not just a select few at the top. This has the added benefit of greatly improving employee engagement and motivation. Organisations like Netflix are renowned for creating a culture of bottom-up decision making across the whole hierarchy. Employees are given the broad guidance to: 1) make decisions based on first principles, reducing reliance on assumptions, and 2) make decisions based on Netflix’s interest in the long term. CEO Reed Hastings was once quoted as saying “I pride myself on making as few decisions as possible in a quarter”.

What might the future hold?

Over the last decade, the level of transaction we feel comfortable doing without a human has steadily risen – We are now not only comfortable to buy our £50 weekly shop digitally, but also a £50,000 car. The threshold of the gravity of the situation that we feel comfortable relying solely on technology will continue to steadily rise as the current digital solutions become normalised. Therefore, it will become more and more important to develop technology that supports our human life, not overwhelms it.

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