Q: I’m a millennial, so I know I’m supposed to love all the new tech in the workplace and what it lets people do—and it’s great to be able to work remotely or have a running team chat going…sometimes. Other times, I feel like my boss is just a blinking message notification, not a person. Is this the future?
A: The advantages of technology in the workplace are pretty clear by now. It lets us do more in less time, efficiently contact many people at once, collaborate on a project remotely, and many more things we can’t imagine ever being without. The down side is that many people are forgetting to relate to their colleagues on a personal level. By neglecting the human side of the business, companies are missing out on one of the biggest business advantages there is—interpersonal relationships. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” so if you are looking to make a difference in your business productivity, start thinking about human connection in the workplace.
Dan Schawbel, author of the soon to be published book Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, believes workplace isolation as a result of technology is the greatest challenge companies face. Schawbel’s book explores the many challenges of forgetting that you are not working with human resources—you are working with human beings. And human beings crave belonging, purpose, trust, and connectivity with their colleagues and leaders. Whether your team is fully remote or part of a large brick and mortar office, encouraging different forms of personal interaction is crucial for successful leaders. You mention that you feel your boss exists as a blinking message notification—this might be an individual issue or it could be symptomatic of the larger culture. Think about the existing culture at your organization. If two colleagues who sit three doors away from each other are invited to the same conference call, would they sit together to take the call? Or would they dial in separately and stay in their own offices? Do senior people stop to chat about non-work-related things when they’re in the shared kitchen space? Or do they get their coffee and head straight back to their desk? These behaviors deliver a message that people don’t want to be connected or don’t think their colleagues are important as individual people. Little things like this contribute to the culture and speak volumes about priorities and values.
As a millennial, you may feel like you should be right at home in a tech-heavy environment—but you’re actually not alone. Many recent studies have found that, despite using text, email, and social media extensively in their personal lives, millennials and Gen Zers actually prefer face-to-face communication at work and especially about their careers. Yes, many work tasks can be completed by email or phone, but for the most impact, face-to-face communication should be prioritized. Schawbel’s book offers a self-assessment that can be used to measure the strength of relationships in your workplace as well as practical solutions to addressing areas of weakness. Building and supporting this kind of culture takes self-reflection and a conscious effort to enact change.
It’s very easy to let technology do the heavy work of managing a team for you. Not feeling the morning commute? Make your weekly one-on-one a call instead. Didn’t feel comfortable providing redirective feedback to someone? Send them an email later. Many of us have been guilty of these kinds of substitutions for personal relationships at some point in our careers, but the business advantages—and risks—are too great to continue on this path. If you truly can’t make it into the office, or if your remote team is located across the country, schedule a live video call instead of a conference call. The two-way, real-time interaction should be key—avoid situations where you deliver a one-sided message or where people can check out too easily. Emails and texts may seem like two-sided communication, but the asynchronous nature of it actually removes the level of engagement necessary for relationship building. There are many such changes you can exact in the work place. For example, having an open door policy, designing meetings to solicit diverse perspectives, and recognizing personal and professional successes with in-person celebrations. At the very foundation of these tactics is the drive to know employees as people, not just as workers.
Workplace happiness depends largely on a sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfillment that stems from the quality of colleague relationships. So, grab a coffee with your coworker, schedule a regular one-on-one with your manager, and find other small, and meaningful, ways to increase connectivity.