Technology in the office leads to isolation. Here’s what you can do

Technology in the workplace has created the effect of isolation and loneliness, according to Dan Schawbel in his new book “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection In the Age of Isolation.”

Schawbel , who is also research director at Future Workplace, aims to help people become more effective leaders despite increasingly decentralized modern workplaces, which are over-reliant on tech, prioritizing long email-chains and Slack over FaceTime and water-cooler chat.

Schawbel talked with Ladders about his book and the role technology has taken in the office.

You talked to 100 leaders from companies like Facebook, Walmart, Nike, and Google for this book. What did you learn from them?

They said that technology is a double-edged sword; it can be good or bad depending on how, when, or where you use it. It can help connect people, but at the same time, if it’s over-used or misused, it can isolate you from the very relationships you’re trying to build – to get people to collaborate together, build connection, and accomplish great things.

What specific data did you find about isolation at work?

I did a study with Virgin Pulse with 2,000 managers and employees in 10 countries and found that introverts, men, and people in Germany – out of all the countries we studied – are more lonely. So it’s definitely affecting people more towards certain demographics than others.

How does disconnection cost companies?

One of the big themes in the book is remote work, because as you can imagine, the workplace is becoming increasingly decentralized. A third of the global workforce works remote, yet two-thirds disengage, are more lonely. Remote workers are less likely to stay at their company, and replacing each worker is upwards of $10,000. If we don’t have a socialized work environment, people are going to leave and it’s going to cost us more money. You can’t innovate and grow a company is you’re spending most of your time replacing workers.

How can you make the effort to improve your work relationships, especially in an age where there’s less face-to-face communication? 

One way leaders say they do it is empowering the remote worker – having them lead the meetings.

Also social events, team-building activities and workcations. Workcations are when you go to an offsite outside or your city or town – or state, or country – and do some social thing, a party, a conference.

Once you get outside your normal workday, people start to talk about more personal-related things. You can’t really establish a work friendship if you’re just talking about business.

You wrote about making conscious decisions on whether to make a conversation email, face-to-face, or phone. Can you go into that more?

The biggest thing we found that gets in the way of human connection is email. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that one face-to-face interaction is more successful than 34 emails exchanged back and forth. Any time I’m about to send an email and I think they might not understand what I mean, I pick up the phone instead.

If you’re trying to communicate something more emotional or complex with a coworker, face-to-face is more appropriate.

A final thought?

Let technology be a bridge, don’t let it be a barrier. Let it make you more human, don’t rely on it to solve all your problems – because it won’t.