CIPD 2018: Technology making employees lonely

Despite the “illusion of connection” technology brings, emails and remote working are leaving workers lonely and isolated

Technology is giving employees “the great illusion of connection” but is actually making people lonely, according to Dan Schawbel, author, partner and research director at Future Workplace.

Speaking on day one of the 2018 CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition, Schawbel said that “technology has connected us like never before but at the same time we feel more isolated and lonely when we’re using it”.

Sharing his experiences of living in New York he said he finds “people are physically there but not mentally or emotionally [there]”. Meanwhile in Japan people have virtual reality girlfriends, and China has dedicated sidewalks for people who don’t look up from their phones, he reported.

This reliance on technology is making people lonely and miss out on human connections, Schawbel said. “If we overuse technology it can damage our health. Loneliness is an epidemic and has the same health risks in terms of reduction of life as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Email is one of the main things that gets in the way of face-to-face interactions both in people's professional and personal lives, Schawbel said. The only way for people to have a true break on holiday is to be phone-free, he asserted, highlighting that some countries and organisations are trying to address the issue. France introduced a “right to disconnect” where people can be fined if they email outside of office hours, and other countries are calling for “four-day working weeks”.

Remote working is another factor in our modern loneliness epidemic, Schawbel continued. “We always talk about the positives [of remote working] but no-one talks about the dark side – the isolation of not having human contact, the loneliness and then the subsequent ill-health,” he said.

This means remote workers are more likely to leave an organisation because they feel “less connected”. “If you have stronger social connections you’ll stay at a company longer,” Schawbel said, explaining that this is why more companies are starting to invest in large sites and office environments where employees can “bump into each other”.

He pointed out that the cost of flying remote workers to a site to build social connections could be less than the cost of having to hire and train new people because remote talent has left. “From a business standpoint this would save a lot of money over the long term,” he said.

However, employees who are based in workplaces surrounded by lots of co-workers can also feel isolated. Schawbel gave the example of people always having their lunch at their desks, and encouraged them to have at least one or two days a week where they take the time to have coffee or lunch with colleagues or someone new.

He also spoke of the “lonely workplace”, where a significant proportion of people have no friendships at work. Social media has “tricked” people to think that they have “an abundance of people in their networks” he said, pointing to findings that someone with 150 Facebook friends will only have four people they can truly rely on in a crisis. Other research shows that technology means people are often emotionally absent when sat in meetings, he highlighted, with employees sending an average of five texts during a business meeting.

When used correctly technology can improve connections, however, Schawbel said: “Let technology be a bridge to human connections not a barrier."

He encouraged leaders to make sure there’s a “balance” in how life and work are integrated. “We need to maximise our days to cover both our personal and professional lives,” he said. “And leaders are responsible for creating boundaries for people to do that.”

Leaders also need to “focus on [their] own fulfilment before anyone else’s”, he recommended. “If you don’t have vision, confidence or you’re not happy yourself you won’t be able to help anyone else.”

Overusing and misusing technology can “damage soft skills and employee health”, he added. “What will differentiate us in future is humanity and our ability to connect, so focus on what makes you you and stick to being human.”