Tech News: Is the technological “new normal” a sub-human reality?
By Louis Fourie
DURBAN - It was the words of a colleague during one of my many virtual meetings over the past week that made me think about our current situation.
She remarked that “I am thankful that we can continue with business due to technology and virtual meetings, but I am afraid that we are losing the human touch”.
During the time of the Covid-19 virus I cannot remember how many times I have heard or read about the so-called “new normal” and that things will never be the same again for business. Some pessimists (or are they indeed realists?) are even of the opinion that certain Covid-19 restrictions and regulations will be with us for the foreseeable future.
Well, with regard to working-from-home and virtual meetings I attend to agree that a large group of people have permanently changed their work habits due to the innovative capabilities provided by collaborative technology.
Simultaneous to the business process changes brought about by the miniscule Covid-19 pathogen, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is also spurring the growth of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, robotics, automation, Internet-of-Things and 3D printing, to name but a few technologies that are fundamentally transforming human resource processes and the nature of work.
High-touch versus high-tech
It seems as if high-touch is increasingly being replaced by high-tech due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the current social distancing regulations by government. Many businesspeople and experts have raised their voices against a government who is destroying businesses and the economy with the punitive and untransparent lock-down regulations empowered by the Disaster Management Act and claiming to be saving lives based on unpublished “scientific evidence”, “expert modelling”, and “risk-adjusted approaches” in order to flatten the Covid-19 curve.
It is this struggle for survival during the Covid-19 time with its severe regulations and associated hardship, together with the ever-present competitive positioning, that accelerated the move of businesses to high-tech.
We already live in an increasingly dehumanised world, where artificial intelligence (AI) has taken over decision-making when we apply for a mortgage or loan at the bank, when medical diagnoses are done, or when drones and killer robots automatically fire missiles based on facial recognition and AI decision-making. Because of the losses suffered by organisations during the pandemic lock-down and numerous restrictions, many of them had no other choice than to adopt the “new normal” of work-from-home while using collaborative technologies.
Despite the many advantages of working-from-home, some early studies are indicating a growing number of problems associated with the lack of social contact in the work environment. The impact on the well-being of employees has been much bigger than anticipated and includes mental health issues, anxiety, depression and the lack of a division between work life and home life. People are for instance referring to Zoom-fatigue to indicate a growing tiredness related to virtual meetings that often takes up many hours per day.
Although we may all appreciate technology during this “new normal,” it seems that we as humans have a primary craving for human contact, face-to-face connection, sharing, belonging and tangible love. We will therefore have to make a special effort to keep the human touch in this time of social distancing, isolation, alienation; the authoritarian compliance and control; and our increased technology dependence.
In our high-tech era we need to retain the high-touch to be fully human. The well-known futurist, John Naisbitt, who formulated and advocates the balancing principle that more high-tech demands more high-touch, puts it as follows: “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of our expanding concept of what it means to be human”, and thus the imperative of “learning how to live as compassionate human beings in a technologically dominating time.”
A balanced approach
Although technology at the present time permeates everything organisations do, we need to embrace new technological solutions without losing the human element that is so important to the well-being of employees, as well as to organisational growth and success. As much as technology assisted us to work smarter and more efficiently, is has often led to people avoiding face-to-face interaction with colleagues and customers.
This created a cold and artificial environment and acutely impacted the culture of the organisation. It is therefore not an either-or situation, but about balance. Both high-tech and high-touch are essential to a successful organisation that wants to grow through the use of technology without alienating employees, customers or clients.
A high-touch culture
A high-touch culture should exist not only for client engagements, but also internally starting with the leadership and including all employee relationships. As an organisation becomes even more technologically advanced, employees must be emotionally connected to their company, its leadership and their fellow employees.
They need to experience that they are part of a team and want to engage clients and fellow employees on a higher, more meaningful human level.
Practically this means personal contact such as meeting for breakfast, lunch or coffee, networking events, social events, visiting a client’s office to say hello and thanks, presenting to a group, or referring business to another client. It also means that a personal phone call or visit is needed instead of an e-mail where emotion cannot easily be gauged.
For the same reason it is recommended that video is used during virtual meetings, since it makes non-verbal communication possible. Not all virtual meetings should be formal business meeting, but some should be social in nature.
And after Covid-19 high-touch will mean a handshake or collegial pat on the shoulder. A high-touch approach may be worthwhile, since many accounts exist where businesses documented a significant increase in revenue and profits due to such an approach.
The importance of nature
Leigh Stringer, a workplace strategy expert, says that working in nature is in the DNA of human beings and improves their mood, reduces stress and increases happiness and productivity. In Japan this is known as “forest bathing,” which encourages employees to experience nature more regularly during the workweek. But if the (home) office does not have a common area outside to work or a forest nearby, it is important to bring elements of the outdoors inside such as potted plants, hanging gardens and furniture from natural elements.
Many of us are wondering what will happen after the Coronavirus. Well, what happens after the Coronavirus and lock-down is not really up to government or even to technology, but to us. It is us who need to ensure that the human-touch is not lost in an increasingly dehumanised world where technology is proliferating during and after the Coronavirus.
It is time for us to reach out in unimaginable creative ways. It reminds me of the 1976 movie with the title: The boy in the plastic bubble. The film is about a boy who had absolutely no immunity against disease and had to live inside a plastic bubble for the rest of his life. He was quarantined, totally isolated, and very alone. To protect him from contamination and infection everything that he consumed or read or played with were given to him through a specially sealed opening, by people who wore gloves and had first carefully sanitised their hands and whatever was passed to him. If contaminated and infected, the boy would certainly die.
As his health deteriorated and it became clear that the boy was in fact slowly dying, he asked if he could perhaps touch his father outside the plastic bubble. He knew that this would mean his death, but he reached outside of his bubble and touched his father’s hand ….
If we do not reach out to complement our high-tech environment with high-touch, the “new normal” world of Covid-19 will become a sub-human reality.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist
BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE