The human cost of the digital transformation of the workplace
By Jannine Zucker, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP
For a while now, the digital experience in our personal lives has surpassed our digital experience at work. We’re able to connect with others and share ideas more quickly than ever. We have access to information and content anytime, anywhere. There is an abundance of intuitive self-service applications that make our lives easier every day. Individuals have now come to expect the same high-touch experience at work as they do in their personal lives. As the digital experience at work continues to catch up to our personal lives, a transformation is taking place as our work lives are increasingly disrupted by technological advancements that can be to the detriment of work-life balance.
Collaboration and Connectivity Tools
Collaboration tools have no doubt made it easier for us to connect to colleagues across different geographies, and the ability to work remotely has enabled people to balance their work with their personal lives. But there are unintended consequences to the benefits afforded by these opportunities — the “human debt,” the cost associated with technological advancements. In his book, Back to Human, Dan Schawbel explains that “despite the illusion of 24/7 connection, in reality, most workers feel isolated from their colleagues, their organization, and their leaders.”[i] In addition to the feelings of isolation at work, the value from always being connected has reframed the notion of work-life balance into work-life integration, as 53 percent of Americans work over the weekend and 52 percent work outside designated working hours, according to the American Psychological Association.[ii]
These challenges have a real tangible impact on both the individual and the organization. The value of the “always-on” employee can be undermined by diminished employee performance and well-being.[iii] According to Darcy Gruttardo, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, there is a direct relationship “between loneliness and productivity and absenteeism.”[iv]
Organizations and employees are seemingly stuck between a rock and a hard place. Meaningful human connections and employee well-being are often overshadowed by new technologies, and yet somehow these advancements still tend to fall short of our digital expectations at work. How then can organizations simultaneously close the digital experience gap between work and our personal lives while also elevating the human experience to pay down the “human debt?”[v]
Establishing a balance through company culture
To strike the right balance, organizations need to look beyond the mere functionality of technology and put people at the center of design. In other words, not technology for technology’s sake, but rather, for the human’s sake.
For example, a multinational IT firm provides incoming employees with access to online learning and an online chat room to meet other new hires. This not only ramps up time to productivity but also empowers employees to begin establishing community before their first day.[vi]
In another example, a satellite television company provides field technicians with a messaging app that enables them to connect with subject matter experts, receive real-time system updates, and look up parts, which empowers them to meet customer demands and cuts down service call time. This seemingly small tool creates a frictionless experience enabling them to be more productive, meets their unique needs in real-time, and connects them with others in their network.[vii]
Building technology “from the human up”
Technology can no doubt create a top-flight workforce experience when built from the human up, but to truly pay down the “human debt” organizations need to take other steps as well. Employees have enduring, personal relationships with their employers and it’s crucial that they are provided with what any relationship needs; meaning and connection.
Wharton Management professor Adam Grant identified that employees in a university fundraising call center saw, on average, weekly donations increase from $411 to $2,083 after simply having a 5-minute interaction with the scholarship beneficiaries! The mere reminder of the outcome of their work reminded call-center workers of their larger purpose and directly influenced their performance.[viii]
Paying down “human debt”
Leadership craves the same intuitive digital experience and human connection as the workforce but has the added responsibility of paying down the “human debt” by creating a culture of connection and meaning across the organization. While there is no one size fits all solution to paying down the “human debt,” there are certain measures that all leaders can take.
First, encourage lasting connections among the workforce that align with their unique values by seeking employee feedback, including them in the conversation and empowering them to shape their own experience. Second, express to employees how their job fits into the big picture. This is of particular importance for frontline managers. Employees often find their day-to-day work filled with seemingly rote tasks. It’s up to their managers to help them realize how these tasks contribute to the organization’s mission.
Given today’s tight labor market, providing a best-in-class workforce experience is a top priority for organizations to attract and retain top talent. With the technological disruptions in the workplace impacting how we interact with our organization, yet still not providing us the digital experience we desire, shaping the workforce experience has become increasingly challenging. Organizations that can reframe the workforce experience into the human experience by identifying where technology can contribute to productivity while also creating meaning and connection will be well on their way to paying down the “human debt.”
[i] Schwabel, Dan. Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation. 2018
[vii] Keitt, T. A good customer experience requires workers to be digitally enabled. Forrester Report; October, 2019.