2021 is the year we hope to see a significant return of people to work. While virtual working has had many benefits, we all miss seeing people in the office (except perhaps that one guy who wears a Christmas sweater in November). The now-ubiquitous digital workplace has become delivery-focused, all about getting stuff done, and not a workplace full of real people with real stories.

In fact, the last few years have felt like a relentless drive towards productivity and efficiency. The pandemic didn't create this, but it has accelerated it — unintentionally — simply through a necessity to carry on. This has resulted in us largely replicating working practices from the office into our digital channels, with the most obvious practices being those focused on delivering stuff. At the expense of what makes us human: Personality. Trust. Being three-dimensional people who enjoy connecting.

Just imagine you're in your favorite café, having some unnecessarily burnt toast with avocado. Suddenly, someone you don’t know leans over and tells you that “this quarter’s results show us maintaining the correct approach.” Just keep your head down, ignore them and hope that they go away. Not a great conversation starter is it? But that’s what work has been like over the last few years. We have got so many collaboration tools that are set up for communication that we forget the collaboration.

All through the pandemic I have been running virtual teamwork and collaboration workshops for a range of customers in both public and private sectors. And there  are some very clear themes developing:

  • We’ve focused so much on delivering that we’ve forgotten how to reflect.
  • We’ve created structures that allow us to work yet they leave no space for spontaneous discovery.
  • There’s a huge desire to redress the balance. To find a way to work to our strengths, to work in a way that gives us more time. Basically, to be ourselves. 

Which is all nice, but what does it mean? How can being ‘more human’ help us work better, and how can we achieve this?

The Value of Being Human

It’s not surprising to learn that teams who stayed socially connected during lockdown performed better. Research from INSEAD found the teams that thrived used technology to become closer as a team. This is largely based on the simple premise that if we get along and trust each other, connect as humans, we’re more likely to help each other deliver higher-quality business outcomes.

Connecting virtually involves introducing more non-work activities into the structured digital world. Using the tools to socialize. Making more and better connections also requires us to present ourselves in those digital environments with our genuine traits rather than with a work persona.

Simply focusing on delivery as the measure of success can overlook the value of the social bonding skills that enable the best possible human collaboration. Skills that make a difference, and let’s not forget, skills that can’t be replaced by a robot (yet!).

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: How to Practice Empathy in the Virtual World of Work

How to Humanize Our Digital World

If we take a technology-centric approach, we end up with technology-first approaches. We talk about use-cases, adoption, functionality. All of which are important, but should come later (or indeed should be the very last thing we focus on when looking at collaboration).

The starting point is to identify what human interactions we actually want. What are the things that spark a conversation, that serendipitous discovery, tacit learning from the experiences of others? Once we know what type of interaction we want, it’s relatively simple to re-pack them into the digital world. Here are few common examples of practical steps you can take:

  • Open a conversation by saying something about you, not about work. Pull people in, engage them in a conversation. That’s what starts a chat in the corridor — the same applies in a digital chat.
  • Engage with people outside of your team, just as we might when we happen upon them in the office. Invite stakeholders, customers or even just someone with a whole different set of experiences into your team meeting. Break the cycle of internal navel gazing.
  • When writing a digital post — such as a Teams post — write as you would speak to somebody sitting across the table from you. How would you make this point? Write the post in exactly the same way.
  • A good team get-together involves all members chatting equally with each other. This should be the same with digital chats. Team leaders can take a more passive approach when they can, responding and encouraging posts rather than being the one that leads all conversations. Make it a point to help the team interact openly with each other.
  • Break the unwritten expectation of always on and set out how you like to work. We take time away from the desk when in the office to chat with colleagues, to make a coffee, to go for a walk and think. The same should be true when not in the physical office. Doing work is a given. How we work means working to our strengths, not to an unwritten rule. Create your own rules.
  • Spontaneous meetings and connections with people we know or don’t know can spark some incredible discoveries, ideas and relationships. Introduce spontaneity into your digital networks by joining new communities AND actually say something! Start with something about you, something that humanizes you, and you’ll be more likely to start up a conversation.

Related Article: New Consortium Looks to Humanize the Digital Workplace

What Story Will You Share?

Being human is about telling stories. We all have stories — both relating to work and to our real lives. Our digital workplaces are great places to tell them. We have a huge audience. Telling and sharing stories, listening to stories, and joining the conversation is what makes us human. It’s also how we learn.

Once upon a time there was a dark place where we didn’t see our friends, family and colleagues. I’m optimistic that next year will have a much happier ending (unless you have three hungry bears hiding in your office). 

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