How to Create a Human Digital Culture
7 Keys to Staying Connected AND Productive
At the birth of the atomic age, Albert Einstein famously said, 'It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.'
In the workspace, we may not have gone that far but the abundance of digital communications technologies does pose unique challenges.
The marketplace today is heavily invested in and impacted by digital communications.
The digital revolution has arguably led to higher levels of collaboration and innovation across many sectors of industry and society.
For business and civic leaders, however, it has also brought challenges relating to keeping people focused and engaged.
The digital revolution is nowhere near finished yet. In its next phase, the most successful entrepreneurs and leaders will be those who can understand and negotiate some of the pitfalls associated with an over-reliance on all things digital.
Effective leaders are cultural architects. They shape a milieu and mindset within their organisations which allows people to flourish and projects to fly.
Over the next five years, one of the most important traits of such a culture will be reflection space.
Numerous studies reveal that engagement with digital communications presents challenges for human cognitive function and therefore business productivity.
As the drive to better analyse data increases, so will the desire to achieve what we might call ‘mindfulness’; that is, a condition in which people are able to pause and reflect on what they’re learning and how it might best be applied.
As levels of remote working and flexible work practices increase, and as the potential for constant Web 3.0 connectedness grows, we will see a rise in time starvation. People will find it increasingly difficult to leave their work behind at the end of the day or week.
In the US today, 60 percent of email users check their mail in bed at night. Many will engage in cyber-conversations long after they’ve said goodnight to their flesh-and-blood partner and long before they say good morning the next day.
According to one Australian study, more than 60 percent of CEOs have trouble switching off after work, because they are connected to their work via smartphones.
Recognising the pressures that accompany constant connectedness, large corporations are beginning to encourage their workers to disengage from the digital space.
Thierry Breton, CEO of the French information technology services giant, Atos has moved to ban internal emails in his company from this year. Workers, he believes, are wasting their time on useless information.
Much has been said in recent years about the supposed benefits of multi-tasking in work place, a practice supposedly made easier by digital communications.
Yet sustained multi-tasking has been shown to produce more costs than benefits.
According to medical and mental health practitioners, it contributes to attention deficits, poor decision-making, information overload and a lack of depth of understanding when it comes to material presented online.
Sleep habits are also affected and studies reveal links between digital multi-tasking, caffeine addiction and addiction to the internet – which is now recognised as a bona fide disorder.
Anxiety and Depression
A study into the impact of social media, undertaken by New York’s Stony Brook University, involved 4000 social network users. It found that students who had more negative interactions on their Facebook pages were more likely to be depressed, regardless of whether they were heavy or light users.
Emotion, it seems, is viral, even online – or perhaps especially online. When we communicate with someone face-to-face, we can respond to subtle messages or silent cues indicating such things as hurt feelings, disappointment and joy.
Language experts call these visual and other cues, the ‘pragmatics of communication’. The online experience reduces our ability to engage with these cues, even when we’re using video technologies.
With or without the use or social networking, general levels of anxiety and depression are costing the U.S. business community something in excess of $31 billion per year.
This is partly because old ideas about achieving work-life balance are becoming anachronistic. The line between work and downtime is becoming increasingly blurred. Indeed, in some instances it might be said to be non-existent now – work and life are seamlessly interwoven within life’s narrative.
Over the next five years, we can expect to see strident calls from mental health advocates for a greater investment from business to provide greater access to basic counselling and therapy for workers.
Some larger corporations will set up mental health units of their own, to provide at least low level counselling for stressed workers.
There is some evidence that heavy use of communications technologies impacts on rising levels of narcissistic behaviour.
In the US, a measurement tool called the Narcissistic Personality Index (NPI) is used to track levels of self-obsessive behaviour in different generational cohorts.
A study by a university in San Diego used the NPI to study attitudes of16,000 students between 1976 and 2006. It found that post-millennium college students scored substantially higher in narcissistic tendencies than students from 20 years earlier.
Some experts attribute increased levels of entitlement to parents who, throughout the 1980s and 90s, encouraged self-expression and individual freedom in their children.
Others, however, have begun to discern links between social media technologies and a rise in narcissism.
Rutgers University conducted a study looking at 3000 tweets from 350 Twitter users. It divided the senders into two groups which it called the Meformers and the Informers.
Meformers posted updates only on their own everyday activities, feelings, and thoughts. They encouraged very little interaction with their followers. Informers shared general information via micro-blogging and had more friends and followers, with whom they engaged at a higher level.
The most prevalent tweeters were Meformers who accounted for 80 percent of all the messages studied.
Clearly not everyone who uses social media consistently is going to become a narcissist. Yet an inward-looking focus is likely to become more common if engagement with social media is not disciplined in positive ways.
Staying Connected While Staying Productive
These are just a few of the challenges facing business leaders and managers as our digital engagement continues to grow.
How do we encourage and facilitate connectivity without compromising productivity?
The following To-Do list is far from exhaustive, but it can help you build a culture that facilitates the latest technologies while encouraging healthy thinking.
1. Go Old School
Most of our job-related communication includes an element of the digital these days. However, it’s a good idea to break away every now and again.
For example, why not use a whiteboard in some of your planning meetings? Or, dare I suggest it, a chalkboard! If you use the latter, some of your Millennial team members will take photos – for them, such olde worlde tech is as rare as dinosaur droppings.
A number of international studies have suggested that we retain information better when we engage it on a printed page than when we see it on a screen. Why not use printed agendas and to-do lists now and again?
Why not ask team members to leave their phones outside your meetings from time to time? It will certainly cut down on the incidence of ‘absent presence’!
I’m not advocating that you abandon digital technology – even if that were possible. I’m talking about reaching a balance and encouraging a culture that engages material via diverse media.
2. Establish Data Fasts
Like the CEO of Atos, it may be important for you to institute new systems which will limit the time your team members feel they’re expected to be online.
In many a workspace, people spend too much time responding to largely trivial emails from office colleagues.
Other companies, like VW in Germany, have experimented with completely shutting down company-related email accounts shortly after workers end their shifts each day. The accounts are switched on again shortly before they’re due back at work.
Still other organisations have started switching off email accounts during holiday seasons such as Easter and Christmas.
3. Free up the Physical Space
The legendary Building 20 at MIT illustrated the importance of fluid physical space.
Built during WW2, it was intended as a temporary structure. It was still producing breakthrough technologies, in building, engineering, ecology and many other areas long after its sell-by date.
It became a world-renowned hub for invention, because innovation requires that ideas connect easily and if ideas are to connect, so must people.
Because Building 20 was designed as a temporary structure, nobody cared if people punched holes in walls, or totally reconfigured the interior space.
As a result, the flow of ideas was uninhibited. You may not be able to start pushing holes in your workspace walls, but you can at least give thought to how you might free up the physical space.
4. Include Reflection Time in Project Planning
A U.S. study has shown something interesting. If you’re engaged in solving a tough problem and you leave it to undertake something more imaginative, such as listening to music, going for a walk or reading a novel, you will return to the problem with a 40 percent boost in your productivity.
It’s not easy to quantify something as ephemeral as reflection time or ‘head space’, but committing yourself to pursue it within the team will eventually reshape the way you set job performance and project planning metrics.
Give people permission to daydream now and again. Numerous psychological studies show that it carries great benefits in terms of problem-solving.
5. Facilitate Social Interaction
If you want your people to be less distracted by the digital, facilitate some downtime with the team.
It may be something as simple as a semi-regular after-work drink – perhaps even including an hour of paid work time now and again. Or it may involve an after-hours dinner or half-day fun activity featuring team members are their families.
Yes, this sort of thing can be overdone by too-zealous managers, to the point where people resent work impinging on their private time. Handled wisely and creatively, though, this type of thing can reduce the anxiety associated with the work environment and the pressure to always be talking ‘shop’.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to establish a (soft) rule that digital gadgets are discouraged during social activities.
6. Share Reading Materials
Share with team members books that have really spoken to you. Do this selectively, of course, so that the books you distribute or recommend add value to their particular skillsets.
Share some of the more interesting material you read on the impact of digital communication, too. Giving people information about the upsides and downsides of digital platforms can help them better navigate their use of digital communications. It can reduce the drained sensation people get when they feel they’re always on call.
7. Twitterise Your Communication
There’s little point trying to develop a more human digital culture if your own digital communications tend to be long and overblown.
If you want to reduce the time people spend staring at screens, shrink the size of your missives to the point where they can easily be read even on small mobile screens.
In any given message, try to make one point rather than several at a time. It’s easier for people to act on one point than many – and action is what you aim to produce.
Talk in terms of specifics, rather than vague generalities, too. People are motivated by clear and accurate information, if it is presented in a style that suggests proactivity and hope.
Without crossing the line into empty flattery, try to include a few words of genuine encouragement. It’s amazing how a few short but thoughtful words can lift the morale of individuals and entire teams.
Encouraging a more human, reflective way of approaching digital technology will result in a business culture where tools remain just that – a means to an end.
Digital technologies make great servants; but they’re tyrannical masters.