Using digital technology to ensure strong social and team connections

In an age of information and unprecedented change, digital technology is increasingly being used to create social connections. As a result, employees are demanding more from their employers, in the hope that digital technology can help them to manage their home and work lives with more autonomy. So just how can employers ensure these channels are effective?

Since the advent of the information age and exponential growth of digital technology, social connectivity has become more accessible, while at the same time, become infinitely more complex. As the communication options have increased, employees are demanding more of their employers to allow them to manage their work and home lives with more autonomy. However, the pitfalls for employers are also clear. Ensuring that the need for real human connection is being met and that digital social interactions are positive, is crucial to ensure employers maximise employee happiness, satisfaction, and ultimately productivity.

In the past 25 years, the world has changed. The rise of the internet and mobile-connected devices created the platform for the subsequent boom in life-augmenting digital services. Such was the underlying utility in technology, today, six of the ten world’s most valuable businesses are tech companies.

Those who grew up in this technological age, and are consequently masters of these technologies, have been dubbed ‘Digital Natives.’ With those classifying themselves as such set to comprise 75% of the working population by 2025, there is no doubt this sudden generational shift has significant repercussions for the workplace and employers.

Digital technology has had a real impact on the way people live and work, from social connectivity, gaming, content virality and sharing, to flexible working, communication, and brand engagement. As a result, employee expectations of what work should look like — fuelled by the promise of simpler, more balanced, and more productive systems — have changed, and are pushing digital transformation forward.

Ever since pedometers arrived in boxes of cereal, the rate of adoption of digital tools has accelerated. From heart-rate monitors built into mobile devices to smartwatches and digital mindfulness accounts; people are taking their health and wellbeing more seriously, and many organisations are taking notice. Google has mandated that all Android devices have a digital wellbeing app, while the UK’s NHS has seen the number of ‘NHS App’ users double in three months even before the COVID-19 pandemic, while Headspace downloads doubled between mid-March and the end of June 2020.

However, due to the sudden nature of this shift, workplaces have found it difficult to keep up.

Today, 91% of workers say that they crave modern technology solutions, yet only 20% of companies are deploying HR and productivity solutions on mobile. Companies are also experiencing difficulties, especially in larger organisations, not only making the changes stick but also making adoption effective. Getting to the heart of why these strategies don’t stick – be that employee distrust, digital boredom as people move onto the latest best thing, or general disinterest — understanding what works is essential to realising the value of health and wellbeing benefits.

Despite the options being out there – from making sure employees are getting enough sleep, to ensuring they are maintaining a healthy weight — the gap between the digital solutions people need and the options employers provide needs to be closed if the economic benefits are to be realised.

Whether it is the pull from users or the push by tech companies and their latest solutions driving demand, Nuno Abreu, Director at Aon in Portugal believes that future workforces are going to look very different from today’s:

‘The flexibility and personalisation digital technology has brought is having an effect on how people engage with work. If the options are opened up, as is the current trend, it could change the dynamics of employment, along with the expectations as a new type of employee enters the workplace. This will be a challenge for companies, but if the response is right, it could be a source of competitive advantage.’

Getting this balance right for employees and providing the technology for the business to become resilient to unpredictable or changing circumstances is crucial if companies are going to remain leaders in their markets.

Creating human connections through technology

Technology has undoubtedly reshaped the modern workplace. From operational improvements to communication channels that enable us to connect socially and professionally, anytime, any place. Yet despite of all the tools at our disposal, do colleagues feel more or less connected on a human level? Research suggests that more than half of managers and employees experience feelings of loneliness as a result of increased tech-driven communication.

While instant messaging services and video conferencing have aided the transition to more home-working, the reality is that real human connections innately require close physical proximity. This is a real challenge for employers both under COVID-19 lockdown and in the ‘new normal.’ Andrea Tarantino, Global Reward & International Mobility Director at Campari, sees ensuring human interaction is key to meaningful social engagements:

‘The really interesting dynamic is how we are going to remake human connections in the future. Before the pandemic, we saw face-to-face meetings as a ‘nice to have’, and were gradually encouraging people to do things remotely, or in quick huddles if at all possible. Now we’re seeing meetings in person as a ‘prefer to have,’ in the respect that having real interactions has positive psychological impacts. We took for granted our presence around others, as our social needs were being so regularly met. The new challenge will be to balance the functional nature of interactions, with human nature.’

There has also been a fast adoption of lesser-used technologies as businesses moved to home working due to the need to continue business-as-usual. Conducting online workshops with digital whiteboards and post-it notes, for example, can ease group collaboration and ensure rich interactions, helping people forget about their surroundings because it ‘feels’ more fluid, and is closer to what they have been used to.

Video conferencing has also democratised group work through one-at-a-time participation. In bringing colleagues together on the same stage and making everyone equally visible, it is helping people feel more included in work processes and supporting intra-team connectedness. At the other end of the spectrum, intranets and internal social channels have also allowed a more measured approach to gathering data, enabling everyone to input into innovation in a way that has created equity in individual visibility. This can be especially helpful in large organisations, which may also have to reconsider their risk, security, and social media policies if the potential for greater employee engagement through social media is to be reached.

On top of the plethora of options is the need to ensure all employees are equally capable of harnessing such technologies. Nuno says that there needs to be a greater focus on ensuring all employees can use the new technologies — especially more experienced employees with most of the business knowledge — and that keeping them engaged and part of the process is important in ensuring the next generation fulfils its potential:

“COVID-19 has increased the social wellbeing agenda and its impact on mental health. Most companies took a ‘now or never’ approach as they had to implement working from home practically overnight. But we’re also looking forward, and understanding what the digital skills in the ‘new normal’ need to be.”

Nuno Abreu, Director, Aon, Portugal

Understanding the downsides of a hyper-connected world

As with any shift of great magnitude, there have been unexpected side-effects. While project management tools and communication channels can be accessed from personal devices at any time, the result is that work can start to intrude on private lives. Nuno explains that while employees finally have the flexibility they have long been asking for, the reality is that for many they have new problems to contend with:

‘While this flexibility has long been sought by employees, we also have to consider the knock-on effects. Some people are finding switching off from work more difficult because there are no boundaries between work and personal lives, whereas others actually liked commuting because it was some time to think and was real down-time from their work. We need to build these things we like back into our lives, and not become slaves to technology.’

Managing stricter working hours, and creating clear lineation between what is for the employee, and what is for the employer is crucial. Taking a complete time-out, to ensure time for reflection as to whether personal needs are really being met is also important in ensuring balance is found. Some countries have taken this particularly seriously, creating legal mandates that employers allow employees the ‘right to disconnect’ such as the French, El Khomri Law (Article 55, 2017), which enshrines employees’ right to rest periods away from work communications.

While digital tools can be useful in facilitating social interactions and functional ‘connectivity,’ they are poor tools in helping their users define themselves and their career or life direction.

Social sharing has made it easier to compare our lives to other peoples, who frequently misrepresent themselves. For a generation hooked on the dopamine rush from social media, and focused on the perceived ‘success’ of others viewed through social networks, as well as the pressure to conform to ‘likes’-based relationship building, some digital tools have the potential to be hugely detrimental to some people’s mental health.

The warping of reality through misinformation and incomplete self-presentation can also be damaging to an individual’s confidence, their understanding of the world, and actually break down previously good relationships. What is more, the proliferation of user engagement through sensationalised content is making it more difficult for people to respond rationally and effectively to real-world crises, creating emotional difficulties that were not previously there. That is in addition to the more direct impacts of bullying and the sharing of harmful content.

The complexities are often not well understood, and the polarising effect on populations can itself cause real stress. If productivity is to remain high, employers need to take the reins and educate their workforce on the potential dangers of online networking and information dissemination.

However, people are becoming wiser to the dangers. Frank Bach, Lead Product Designer at Headspace, says that the COVID-19 pandemic has given people the impetus to scrutinise their relationship with technology, and that people are looking for positive ways to live with digital tools in a way that helps them:

“There’s a shift towards authenticity. People want to feel seen and spoken to in a way that is real. I see the role of tools like Headspace shifting to even more of a customer-centric model, where we are truly solving problems and listening to people’s needs. What COVID-19 has really done is pull back the curtain, put people back in control, and said; “You can decide what your relationship with technology is.” People are finding their own balances. You can turn your phone off, mute notifications from particular groups, and customise the way you manage your work alongside the rest of your life.”

Frank Bach, Lead Product Designer at Headspace

In the days following the COVID-19 lockdown, Headspace saw twelve times as many people using the reframing anxiety at-home workout, and a tenfold increase in users starting stressed meditation. Similarly, Aon saw an increase in usage of more than 25% of the Well One app.

Nuno says that not only are these services crucial to employee wellbeing but that the data they provide helps to ensure they are relevant to each employer. Solutions can be tailored to each individual, while providing the data to help uncover the root cause of employee difficulties — allowing companies to tackle employee problems, rather than the symptoms of the problem:

‘Before Well One, we mostly asked questions around the five pillars of wellbeing; physical, social, emotional, professional, and financial, and consulted to diagnose the problem and create a recovery plan. But with Well One, we have a more appropriate and reliable way to diagnose the problems, create more practical solutions, and define bespoke strategies.’

But what of those employees who actively opt-out of participating because they don’t want to share this data with their employers? Andrea, who has implemented Well One, says that providing the foundations for people to build resilience to the changes in their lives and the wider world, as well as communicating the benefits, is key to ensuring employees benefit as much as possible:

“There are new dynamics forming, and we have new sources of stress. We’re spending much more, or much less time with our families and friends, and we have to find new ways of managing these things as we don’t have our ‘normal’ ways to fall back on. In times of uncertainty, people need a guiding light, some certainty that puts them in more control of what is happening. In providing information in a completely transparent way, and helping people understand what changes mean for them, people are put at ease by the strategies we are deploying.”

Andrea Tarantino, Global Reward & International Mobility Director, Campari

Designing a brighter future

As well as the shift in technological applications in both work and life, people have also been witness to an unprecedented amount of volatility. Frank sees the factors outside our control as having an impact on our expectations of the world, ourselves, and those who impact our lives:

‘In the past 10 years, we have lived through a global recession and a pandemic. Young people entering the workplace in the past 15 years know that work is not the be-all and end-all, they have a broader perspective than that. They know that work is a major part of life and is the basis of living, but are also aware there are threats to their job security everywhere, and that they should have more power over the things that guide their lives.’

Andrea believes the seeds of change have been planted by the situation that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, not just from a personal, one-to-one perspective, but a societal perspective too:

‘We’ve become much more empathetic and more sensitive and emotional about certain things. The pandemic has forced us to confront these things more directly — the lack of human contact has caused us to really evaluate what matters in life, what our values are, and what is most important. From seeing our colleagues in home environments and coming to understand their personal circumstances better, to looking at the wider societal effects and the people on the front line who are caring for others, we have come to understand each other better through a period of separation.’

In this sense, digital applications can be a way of ensuring that the social activities employees previously enjoyed are not lost due to circumstances outside your control. Doing exercise routines with your friends, cookery courses, quizzes and competitions, and sharing ‘fun’ things through instant messaging. Andrea has seen first hand the positive outcomes of deploying social solutions:

“We have tried to create moments that create togetherness, which is one of our values. We created the Campari Social Club, where people can come together, play an instrument, eat and drink together, or do a group activity such as yoga. It’s had a hugely positive impact on people interacting and a general feeling of everyone coming together.”

Andrea Tarantino, Global Reward & International Mobility Director, Campari

There are many possibilities when it comes to engaging employees and colleagues socially, all of which can be done in a digital or face-to-face way. Why not consider:

  • Team rituals, such as one-to-one coffee or lunches
  • Frequent check-ins, and providing general updates
  • Share relaxation and health tips
  • Start a club (for example, a book club)
  • Create competitions and team activities
  • Setup non-work team training sessions, such as learning a language

You can also try these tips on how to maximise your relationships when working from home:

  • Sharing photos and videos of your life outside of work
  • Speak via video, not audio only, to increase human connection
  • Introduce colleagues to other people in your life and household
  • Make time for non-work related catch-ups
  • Sharing activities that are helping you work from home
  • Use instant messaging services to create regular interactions
  • Try collaboration software, such as whiteboards and project management tools

Ensuring positive social connections is a challenge, even in office environments. But as we become more reliant on digital tools to facilitate our connectedness, we need to make sure the whole organisation has been considered. Andrea sees addressing a wider mix of needs to ensure that digital tools are properly integrated socially, and inclusive of all people in the organisation the best way to help them realise their full potential:

‘Going forward we’re thinking more about how to integrate digital tools and ensure everyone has been upskilled. We also need to turn our attention to what the changes mean for current and future employees, to ensure we attract, motivate, and engage them, to create a new sense of purpose and meaning for them. But we want to do this in a way that is connected — to ensure people are being fulfilled in all aspects of what is important to them.’

With all of the options available there is huge potential for employers to increase their organisational efficiencies. By reducing total spending through cost-effective digital solutions, increasing productivity through the flexibility employees need, and attracting the talent the business is looking for, you too can become rising, resilient.

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