Maintaining human connection in a digital world
How has digital changed our day-to-day lives?
Nowadays we are used to ordering our food through digital technology, be it via a delivery service like Deliveroo or Uber Eats, or through scanning a QR code when we sit down in a restaurant. We no longer need to ring up and visit our local takeaway or engage in small talk with restaurant staff. Even some of our larger purchases are now becoming entirely digital. Buying a car used to involve visiting multiple car dealerships and building relationships with salespeople, but now we can use services such as Cazoo and Cinch which allow us to purchase a car with just a few taps before it is delivered directly to our door.
We even rely on technology for our relationships. Looking through digital representations of possible companions and outsourcing much of our decision making to machine learning algorithms and big data, neither of which we have any visibility of.
Many customer service interactions are entirely digital now also. We are more and more normalised to interacting with web and app forms, automated chatbots, and automated voice response over the phone.
What about our work lives?
Even before the Covid pandemic and its obvious impact on our work lives, digital technology was changing the way we interact in the workplace. Collaboration tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Jira, Confluence, Trello etc. mean that we no longer need to speak to our colleagues to tell them that a task is complete or ask them for details of a particular project. We can transfer all the information we need digitally, via these tools, without having to wander over to our colleagues’ desks. This has gradually eroded the need for in-person human interactions in office environments.
Remote working further lessens the human interactions we have in our work days. Prior to Covid, remote working was already a growing trend. Now it is expected that nearly 50% of employees will work remotely at least some of the time following Covid 19.
What fundamental impact does this have on us?
There are a few key statistics that articulate the impact the digital world is having on both our social and working lives:
- 70-93% of all communication is non-verbal – By swapping face-to-face interactions with digital ones, we are missing out on a huge amount of information. I’m sure everyone has been guilty of misreading the tone of an email or text message at some point.
- 20% of remote workers struggle with communication and collaboration – The information we are missing out on means virtual meetings are often far worse for productivity than an in-person environment. Additionally, our brains need to fill in this information gap, leading to increased anxiety and reduced levels of security in the workplace.
- Over 1/3rd of remote workers feel isolated and lonely – The limited opportunity for serendipitous human connections means we miss out on chances to form bonds or just vent our frustrations in our professional lives.
- 46% of Americans spend 5-6 hours a day on their phone – We are constantly being overwhelmed by a stream of notifications and digital messages. Documentaries such as The Social Dilemma have highlighted how tech companies design their products to be addictive and take up as much of our attention as possible.
Over time all of these behaviours lead to increased levels of loneliness, anxiety and disengagement. What’s worse is that it’s now even harder to tell when our friends or colleagues are feeling this way as we can’t pick up on the normal social cues we rely on so heavily in the physical world.
So, what can we do about it?
Fortunately, there is a lot that can be done to reverse some of the effects we have just discussed. Starting with creating a high level of awareness on the issue at hand, and recognising it’s impacts. This seems obvious, but due to the gradual nature of change many people will fail to notice, much like the ‘boiling frog effect’ or Sorites Paradox. Practically, there are many things we can do with regards to product, process and organisational design to alleviate these issues. You can read about them in part 2 of the blog here.