Our personal relationships have been transformed by smart phones and social media, giving rise to a new and apparently commonly accepted set of behaviours that are nonetheless distressing for those on the receiving end. A 2015 article in Psychology Today revealed that approximately 50% of men and women have experienced ’ghosting’ and as many have ’ghosted’ someone else. Wow.
Now, it seems, these behaviours are starting to permeate the workplace.
What does this say about 21st Century society? For us, it suggests that the rise of smartphones and digital culture have created virtual landscapes where it’s much easier to hide behind screens and avoid ’hard’ conversations. "It’s not you, it’s me" was always difficult, and yet the act of providing closure is so much kinder than simply evaporating into the virtual ether.
Our digital landscapes are rapidly changing how we interact with one another as humans. We’ve profiled the work of Sherry Turkle previously; Sherry is a Professor at MIT and her specialist area is the psychology of human relationships with technology. Her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation argued that digital natives, those who’ve grown up post-internet and smartphone, are relinquishing face-to-face communication in favour of online interaction. Face-to-face communication is quite simply too hard, requiring emotional resilience to deal with the spontaneity of human dialogue and also to manage unedited representation - no opportunity to edit or photoshop real-time conversation.
Digital communication allows us the (unacceptable) excuse not engaging in any human interaction that is any less than baseline transactional, but faced with the proliferation of workplace automation and AI, this has never served us less.
I was recently invited to a meeting with a new client to discuss a new project. The first meeting was postponed with less than two and half hours’ notice. It was rearranged, only for the client to text, ten minutes after the allotted meeting time, saying that he was unwell. True story. While I’m sure there’s some plausible explanation for this, it felt incredibly unprofessional and tarnished our view of that organisation. The actions of one person can have a resounding impact.
A recent Washington Post article reported workers ghosting employers - quite simply, they stop turning up to work and fail to even message in a resignation. Other research points to a growing trend among Generation Z to simply disengage from hiring processes when they feel they’re not been engaged with in the right way. Whichever way we skin it, that these behaviours are now being documented as more than one off instances, suggests our basic human capability to communicate has been massively impacted.
Our human skills, including social-awareness, empathy and communication are key to remaining relevant in the future of work. Tech firms are already competing to develop algorithms that will reduce, or worse, eliminate, the need for humans in the workplace. Many tech evangelists argue that we’re a hair’s breadth away from technology being able to emulate human empathy and reasoning, which, while we strongly disagree with the viewpoint, means that work is already underway to eventually render humans irrelevant in the workplace of the future.
Human skills include the ability to show up and engage in hard conversations - conversations that will inevitably challenge us with their emotional complexity; it takes huge courage to engage in communication that may cause offence if handled the wrong way. It seems now however, that our ability to have any kind of hard conversation is being undermined by an inability to demonstrate even bare-bone levels of human courtesy and respect.
But we CAN and MUST communicate with empathy, if we are to remain relevant in the future of work. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in our social interaction, such conversations are not only possible, but hugely rewarding emotionally. Brené Brown, whose work on vulnerability and courage has gained global accolade, has focused her latest book, Dare to Lead, to the idea that the ability to have hard conversations will determine leadership success or failure in the future of work.
Human relationships have always been messy. They can be tough and immensely painful, especially when they don’t work out. But the flip side is that they provide deep joy and a sense of connection that is absolutely critical to our sense of wellbeing. Attempting to "swipe-left" on human interaction does us no service at all, neither at work, nor in our future ability to thrive as a species.
For thousands of years, the way that humans trade with one another has been contingent on trust and robust human relationships. Workplace automation and AI will provide transactional efficiency; the huge commercial opportunity for business now is to leverage human skills to provide deeply enriching client experiences that embed loyalty in increasingly fluid landscapes. We predict that professional empathy is about to go large.