The deep dive into a digital world: Lessons we must take forward

Vicki Krajewski, Executive Director, Digital, Talking Talent

The nature of what we can do online has transformed dramatically over a short period of time. Flashback to flip phones and dial-up internet of 2005 for stark proof.

But a quickly expanding digital capability didn’t come with ready-made instructions on how best to use it. Some of us may have tried remote working or attempted a few awkward Skype calls with far-flung friends, but any pre-pandemic flirtations with online life are a timid toe in the water when compared to the push into the pool we’ve experienced during global lockdown.

Thousands, if not millions, of offices and organisations, already had the technology and ability to work remotely and flexibly - but compared to the pace of innovation that has made these things possible, we have been doggedly slow to embrace their potential at any scale.

The Coronavirus crisis has plunged us into an immense experiment where digital tools are suddenly our main means of working, learning, shopping, relaxing and sometimes even caring for those we love. So it seems appropriate to pause and consider what we’ve learnt from our collective experiences in the deep end of digital.

First, and perhaps most obvious, coronavirus has given us a vivid lesson in what digital doesn’t do.

It is painfully clear from our socially isolated outposts that ‘digital’ will never replace physical. That we refer to meeting up in person as ‘IRL’ (in real life) exposes the fact that we experience Zoom calls, emojis and chat boxes as something other than real. In fact, when writer William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in a 1982 short story, he described it as a ‘mass consensual hallucination’.

There’s a reason for this feeling. On video calls, we lack the ability to make physical contact or observe body language. More significantly, we can’t make actual eye contact. To appear as if we are, we must stare into the cold lens of our laptop or phone camera.

Our experience of this mediated connection is markedly different. The neuropathways that are stimulated in face-to-face communication remain unused - and as a result, numerous studies correlate the amount of time spent on digital media with increased anxiety and decreased wellbeing.

Unlike the fear of lost productivity, control and compulsion to measure success through presenteeism, the recognition of what’s missing in digital connections is - and should remain - a legitimate obstacle to adoption. Even the most ardent introverts aren’t completely rejoicing our current situation. ‘I really hope we can keep doing everything exactly like this’, said no one.

We need IRL relationships and interactions to build trust and loyalty and to experience and extend empathy, attention and focus to each other. Without direct human connection, we literally suffer.

So the question is not an all-or-nothing situation - but how much more can and should we incorporate our new digital ways of working into our ‘new normal’ and to what ends?

We’ll have the worst outcomes where we aim or claim to replace IRL with digital-only interventions - and I believe that’s the point of clarity that the coronavirus crisis has shone on our digital landscape.

For all the time's someone has said, ‘We’ll replace this in-person training with online learning’, there have been exponential times the reaction has been ‘online learning stinks’. The expectations we place on our digital capabilities have everything to do with how much we love (or hate) them later.

As science fiction has been warning us for decades, replacement of human interaction is neither advisable nor truly possible. But coronavirus has shown us something about what is.

So what should we expect of digital?

There is no denying that our digital devices and platforms have been a lifeline throughout this crisis.

While our virtual connections have not kept us from feeling the void of isolation and social distancing, they have met essential and foundational needs. Indeed, without our current technology, this crisis would have been more difficult and painful, with more severe outcomes for many across the world.

What have we learned about what digital does well?

  • The benefits of remote working. Even as flexible working was written into employment law, many employers pursued the policy in name only and effectively frowned upon those who would have enjoyed its benefits. People who have experienced the necessity of remote working should find that employers fears are not validated. Organisations have actually seen the positives of remote working and intend to take it forward into the ‘new normal’.
  • Continuity and sustained support. The office can be closed. The kids can be swinging from the ceiling fan. Lunch can be boiling over, but you can still send a quick text message to keep things moving or get desperately needed help and support.
  • Flexibility. Digital tools connect us in a way that enables 24-hour support as we work across time zones and geography. In my department, this means we can make actual, real-life coaches available around the clock. So someone who is sharing childcare with their spouse and working late hours can get coaching on any device in any location super early in the morning or late into the evening. You can engage for two seconds or two hours without planning or scheduling or approvals. With well-designed digital, you get what you need, when you need it so you can take better care of yourself.
  • Rapid reach. While the ‘always-on’ aspect of digital may erode our boundaries if not handled mindfully, digital connections can have a democratizing effect inside organisations. We have the power to include everyone in a shared experience with consistent support - and in a situation of acute challenges and anxieties, digital can expedite getting much-needed help and support to The All instead of The Few.
  • Environment. Dolphins in the canals in Venice? There is no denying that our enforced slow-down has given our planet a chance to breathe. And with the looming climate crisis presenting threats exponentially more dangerous and severe than the current pandemic, it’s long past due to consider real and difficult changes to our lifestyles. Limiting business travel and daily commutes can be a boon to us that yields more time with our families and cleaner air to spend it in.

What should we look out for as we move through this change?

  • Pushing for inclusion through the digital divide. While some people are comfortable with digital technology and interactions, others are not. We need to consider not only physical and economic access but neurodiversity. The best programmes and interventions always give people multiple means of interacting and getting their needs met. That way, the choice is with the individual who is empowered to connect in the way that best suits them at any given time.
  • Using digital in context: ‘people, not pixels’. I hope moving forward the purpose and function of digital interventions can build on the sense of clarity afforded us by the current crisis. To aim or claim to use digital as a replacement for direct, unmediated human interactions is folly, and will lead us down a path of anxiety and decreased wellbeing—but to use digital as an essential aspect of an empathy-based, humane way of working will finally give us the increased freedom and flexibility that has long been the promise of our frantically-paced race to innovate.

Here’s hoping we can keep all the good stuff as we move through this historic moment into an ever-changed future together.