Why analogue interactions and digital tools work better together

Digital transformation is driving game-changing efficiencies. Yet, there are many “analogue” aspects of our lives that are well worth keeping as we hurtle towards the digital age.

At a glance The abrupt switch to widespread remote working in 2020 would have been impossible if not for digital technology. The many benefits of digital transformation are here to stay. However, research indicates technology can dehumanise interaction and collaboration. For digital productivity tools to drive long-term impact, it is important to combine them with face-to-face interaction and “analogue” ways of working.

By Nigel Bowen

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the world’s workplaces, with many experts arguing several years’ worth of digital transformation was abruptly shoehorned into a six-month period in mid-2020.

The many efficiency-generating, cost-slashing, workplace-flexibility-promoting virtues of digital technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Asana have been well documented.

Yet, even as we excitedly embrace the world-changing digital tools at our fingertips, we have come to realise that technology alone cannot satisfy our deeply human emotional, social and creative needs.

The old-fashioned human brain

Dr James “Mac” Shine, a scientist with the University of Sydney’s Mind and Brain Centre, has spent all of his adult life studying brain activity patterns. He was also an early convert to remote working.

“In 2018 I did a fellowship at Stanford University,” he explains. “My wife is Texan, and she was staying with her family while I was meant to be based in California. To maximise my time with her and our kids, I kept flying down to Texas and remote working from there. Then, when we got back to Sydney, we had the choice of living in a small city apartment or buying a house near the beach on the Central Coast. We chose the beach house, which meant I continued to do a lot of remote working.”

However, Shine does not work remotely 100 per cent of the time, nor does he have plans to ever become an exclusive remote worker, even though the commute to his Sydney workplace involves a three-hour round trip.

“For all the benefits, remote working does have some drawbacks, and will continue to do so until the IT evolves and becomes less clunky,” he says. “Digital technology isn’t currently great at conveying what scientists call ‘non-explicit communication’ and what everyone else calls ‘body language’.

“In a real-world interaction, you can derive a lot of information from the way someone is sitting, the way they shake your hand, or a tiny lift of their eyebrow. People try to observe that non-explicit communication during Zoom calls and inevitably end up frustrated, which is why they get ‘Zoom fatigue’.”

Shine also warns about a more significant shortcoming of digital technology – especially for knowledge workers – namely that it doesn’t lend itself to “agenda-less creativity”.
“One of the more interesting things about the human brain is that it often produces breakthrough ideas when it’s not preoccupied with an issue,” Shine says.

“How often do you agonise over a problem for days, and then have an elegant solution pop into your head while you’re having a shower? Offices are, in part, designed to allow people to bump into each other and discuss what they are working on. It’s impossible to quantify, but countless scientific breakthroughs and, I assume, brilliant business ideas have arisen from serendipitous hallway catch-ups.”

Shine isn’t prescriptive about how much time colleagues should spend together, but he does believe there should be semi-regular face-to-face contact.

“Organisational missions differ and people differ,” he says. “I’m happy spending a lot of time alone reading and thinking and, in fact, need to do that to produce anything worthwhile. But, barring COVID-19 shutdowns, I always spend one or two days a week in my workplace. I make sure I spend a lot of time with my students and colleagues on those days. I hope that benefits their creative process, and I know it benefits mine.”

Digital minds, analogue hearts

Anders Sörman-Nilsson is a futurist who has written several books about digital transformation, most notably Digilogue: How to Win the Digital Minds and Analogue Hearts of Tomorrow’s Customers.

“COVID-19 has created a burning platform, speeding up the embrace of videoconferencing and workplace-collaboration platforms among late adopters,” he observes. “By and large, that’s a good thing. However, business owners and managers need to realise digital technology is literally dehumanising, in that it obviates the need for real-world human interaction.

That’s great for infection control. But it’s not so good when you’re trying to build a strong corporate culture, or encourage collaboration, or create opportunities for early career staff to learn from their more experienced colleagues.”

How do employers encourage workers to feel a sense of belonging and collaborate with their colleagues in increasingly digitalised workplaces?

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