Don’t Let Technology Be a Barrier to Human Interaction

March 1, 2019

Technology in the workplace

AMA spoke with Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at Future Workplace, about the effect of technology on human interactions. Schawbel noted that we now check our cellphones every 12 minutes and send multiple emails in lieu of more effective face-to-face conversations. Here’s a portion of AMA’s interview with Schawbel, the author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation (Da Capo Press, 2018).

AMA: You say in the book that our addiction to technology, especially the smartphone, is actually reprogramming our minds, and it’s shaping our actions, our feelings, and our thoughts. In your mind, how is technology isolating us at work specifically, and what can we do about it?

Dan Schawbel: I think we ourselves are isolating ourselves in the workplace. It’s really fascinating. There was a whole study about open offices…. And 70% of companies took it seriously and had an open office. Yet new research has come out saying that even though it looks like you’re surrounded by so many people, you are in a sense isolated or having fewer interactions with an open office than a closed one.

I find that so interesting. It’s like even though we could be around so many people in the subway or walking the streets in Manhattan—in any city or anywhere—you’re also with no one at the same time because everyone’s looking down [at their phones]. Look at what’s happening in China and other parts of the world. There’s like a lane for “zombie” walkers….

In the workplace, I think it’s important because managers use technology as a crutch, whereas they should use technology as a bridge to human interaction, not a barrier. You use it to get into a conference room, a meeting, have a social celebration because a co-worker has a birthday party. Use it to get people to a location or for small things like reminders. You know, remember to bring this information or this portfolio into a meeting.

But once you’re in the meeting, be physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally present…. People in meetings—they spend about 15% of their time being distracted by their technology. They send between three and four texts or emails during meetings instead of actually being attentive and hearing what other people are saying around them.

AMA: Can you give us some other examples of how this challenges a team leader or a group leader?

DS: I think managing conflicts is the obvious one. People don’t learn how to manage conflicts when they’re in college. You kind of have to figure that out through experience. And the problem is, people are trying to solve so many conflicts with technology instead of actually having one-on-one conversations.

Leaders have to be more empathetic now, because you don’t know what’s going inside someone’s head. You don’t know if they had a bad day, and you have to meet them where they are. So if they had a family member that died or they’re really sad, you need to talk with them and figure out what’s going on and make sure that they have time off to be able to take care of that. And you can’t really do that through text because that’s very impersonal and not really human.

I think technology can do incredible things. It’s connected us all. But at the same time, it’s given us the illusion that we’re hyperconnected, that we have so many friends and colleagues who are there for us, when someone who has an average of 150 Facebook friends only has three actual friends who will be with them at a time of an emotional crisis.

It’s convinced us that we have so many connections and that it’s solving all of our problems. But at the end of the day, we’re the ones operating those machines, and we have to be responsible for our actions.

Listen to the AMA podcast with Dan Schawbel.

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American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.

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