As technology speeds us into an increasingly uncertain future, we can find ourselves behind a step, simply reacting to or overwhelmed by the exponential changes around us. We might be mapping trends and implementing technological solutions based on those trends to keep up, not fall behind and accelerate past our competition. We believe technology is taking us in a direction, and want to plan for it. Yet who is in the driver’s seat – technology, or us humans? And to what end?
What would it look like for us to design a future of work that would meet our human capacities, needs, aspirations and values and help us flourish and thrive? When we talk about the future of work, we largely talk about technological advances and technical solutions. While these are important, it’s also vital that we design the future of work in ways that will allow us to flourish in our full humanity.
As an executive advisor and coach to CEOs and founders, I have seen firsthand how leaders are challenged to keep pace and get ahead of the digital revolution while balancing the very human needs of their employees, teams and customers. Below are three elements I believe will be key for leaders to consider in the future of humans at work:
1. Human Skills
Many of the skills of the future will require a human connection, not just digital expertise. With every generation that is born into ever-advancing technology, it’s not just about keeping pace with that technology. Digital is increasingly becoming second nature to us. I believe what will set apart leaders, innovators and employees will be their social-emotional capacities, ability to discern what matters, empathy, care, connection and even love — things that technology cannot do for us.
You can start building your muscles around these soft skills today. As you go about your day, ask yourself, “What opportunities do I have to be a little more human and a little more caring?” When you are in a meeting, walking down the hall or talking to a colleague, what small acts of kindness or connections can you make? In my experience, it can be a simple as putting down your phone, looking someone in the eyes and smiling.
2. Social Connection
We are innately social creatures who rely on reading nonverbal cues contained in our faces and bodies to read what is going on underneath the surface. Human connection and social interaction are vital to employee wellbeing. This is why I believe we will need to design our future work environments and customer interactions for more, not less, social connection.
In the middle of a stressful, busy day loaded with deadlines, it might feel impossible to find space to connect. Yet notice that as you begin to make these small gestures of kindness and connection, it begins to affect those around you. Social connection is the foundation of teams functioning well and of building the kind of trust that technology cannot create for us.
Explore when you can intentionally create space and time in your schedule to connect. For example, give yourself an extra 10 minutes in the morning before your first task to say hello to your team. Design meetings that address team tension, and encourage employees to attend in person so you can better read nonverbal cues and find ways to signal safety through your body language. I believe the more you design work around humanness, the more permission you give others to follow suit.
3. The Ability To Unplug
From my perspective, knowing how to unplug will be more vital than ever. The level of sensory bombardment has reached a high, with seemingly everyone carrying a smartphone that can double as a TV and computer in the palms of their hands every waking moment. Our current environments are impacting how we evolve, and technology is designed to keep us hooked. I believe knowing how to let go, decompress and unplug, and become more present — through practices including breathing, meditating, being in nature or play – could become central in the future of humans at work.
Just as we schedule our activities, we can schedule a time to restore, unwind and unplug. It’s simply a matter of prioritizing it. In my coaching, I recommend my clients block off times during their day that must be reserved for restorative practice. Take a few moments to breathe and meditate (phones and computers off) at your desk. Take a walk in nature, or sit by flowing water — if your office has a fountain in its lobby, that will do. Tapping into the rhythms of our own bodies and nature can be a powerful way to reset.While there is a certain perpetual motion of technological advancements, we also have some agency in designing a future we want. It is too often that we are the workers in our lives and not the designers. It’s about learning the art of living well and designing our work (and lives) in ways that accentuate our humanness, not replace it.