The technology-enabled workplace can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Dan Schawbel, research director at Future Workplace and author of the leadership book “Back to Human,” and Erin Yang, vice president, Platform Technology Product and Strategy at Workday, talked to me about the role of leadership in addressing this issue. We also discussed how millennials are redefining engagement at work to focus more on social connections. Take a listen here:
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If you’re more of a reader, below you’ll find the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. You can find our other Workday Podcasts here.
Greg Thomas: Hi, welcome to the Workday podcast. I’m Greg Thomas from Workday. Today we’re talking about how the technology-enabled workplace can be a lonely place and the role of leadership in addressing this, and how millennials are redefining engagement at work to focus more on social connections.
With me today are Dan Schawbel, research director at Future Workplace and author of the leadership book “Back to Human,” and Erin Yang, vice president of Platform Technology Product and Strategy at Workday. Welcome to you both.
Erin Yang: Thank you.
Dan Schawbel: So happy to be here.
Thomas: Glad you’re here. So, before we dive in, Dan, in a sentence or two, because we’re definitely going to go deeper on this, what drew you to this topic in the first place?
Schawbel: Well, every book I write helps get people of my generation, Erin’s generation, millennials, to the next phase of their career. So, I started this voyage and as a recent college graduate wrote Me 2.0, which helps us get from college to our first job, and then promote yourself with first job to management. And then I wrote a leadership book because over 40 percent of people in our generation have a manager title and above, and about 4 percent have a director title and above, and they’re quickly moving into director- and even VP-level positions, which is very exciting. Then about a year-and-a-half or two years ago, I was interviewed for a documentary that’ll be released on Netflix next year called The Revolution Generation. During that interview, I was asked, “What’s the biggest obstacle that this generation’s facing?”
So, in my head, I’m thinking global warming, student loan debt—which is now $1.53 trillion outstanding—and world war, nuclear war. Then I think, “Okay, but what’s affecting us on a daily basis?” And it came down to isolation. We’re overusing and misusing technology. We tap our phones over 2,600 times a day and look at our phones every 12 minutes—and anytime I say every 12 minutes, everyone says to themselves, “I think I look at my phone every 5 seconds.” It’s an enormous addiction and what’s happened is our abuse and addiction of technology has led to isolation, which has led to loneliness, which is bad for our health. So, I made all those connections and I realized that the biggest thing we’re facing, especially as I’ve interviewed 100 people for the book, is that people feel very isolated in their position, not just because they’re just taking management roles for the first time, but because we have a very decentralized workplace—people working from everywhere, which is good for freedom and flexibility, but can also lead to isolation and loneliness.
Thomas: As you were talking, I set my phone aside for this and I instinctively reached for my pocket to check it and it wasn’t there, so can certainly relate to that. You mentioned these 100 millennials that you talked to in writing this book. You dub them in the book, appropriately enough, the millennial 100. So what led you to that list and wanting to create and talk to that group of leaders?
Schawbel: I’ve wanted to do this for many years and this was a great opportunity to actually initiate. My thought originally was, “What if I knew 100 of the top young leaders at some of the best companies in the world.” Workday and GE, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks—I mean, the list is pretty amazing. So, I just set out to do it. It took three-and-a-half months. I did a nomination process, plus I chose people that I interviewed for the last book who got more senior roles at their companies and people from our member network. So, it was a pretty intense process of not just selecting, but getting it approved by PR at the different companies, and making sure they fell within 24 to 35 years old. Then just doing interviews, and it ended up being 240 pages—single spaced—of content; and then the process of taking that, blending it with a research study I did with Virgin Pulse, plus my insights, experience, exercises, and tips together formed the book.
Thomas: That’s a lot of content. What was the biggest or most surprising thing that you found when you talked to those 100 people?
Schawbel: The most surprising thing from the interviews, the thing that came up again and again, was that technology is a double-edged sword. Whether people think it’s good or bad, what really matters is how you use it and not to misuse it. The new philosophy for the book is like, let technology be a bridge to human connection instead of a barrier. Let it get you to a meeting room or a social event, but if you’re in that meeting room or social event, make sure that you’re present, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. So, you’re actually interacting with your teammates, and there’s a free flow of information and idea sharing that creates strong human connections, which leads to better business results.
Thomas: Let’s bring Erin into this conversation. Erin, you were one of those 100 millennial leaders that Dan talked to. What’s your perspective on this?
Yang: I totally agree with Dan and that it’s a double-edged sword. I personally have had a very positive experience with using technology in the workplace. My first job, actually, my entire team was in Chicago and I was the lone person out in our San Jose office and so I had to find ways to use technology to build that connection with them. What we ended up doing was literally leaving a webcam on all day so that we could see the casual interactions, we could have conversations as soon as you thought of a topic. But I’ve also seen the negative side where you have 10 people in a room all looking at their laptops and not engaging with each other, not even eye contact. So, to me, it’s all about how you apply that technology.
I will say as you get into leadership, you realize the importance of expanding beyond the technology and the tools, though, because there’s so much in influence and personal relationships that you need to leverage on a day-to-day basis.
Thomas: Yeah, I mean, we work so much through one another. It’s influence and it’s making sure that everyone’s rowing in the same direction. Maybe an obvious follow-up to that, but then, why is it a concern? You talked about in leadership, the notion of working a lot through influence, but when you think about your team, when you think about companies as a whole, why is that sense of potential isolation and over-reliance on tech a concern?
Yang: For me, because I grew up in product management, influence was always a really key topic. You don’t actually have direct control over the engineers you’re trying to convince to work against the priorities that you’ve set. You really don’t have direct control over anything, and so what you’re trying to wield all the time is influencing people, convincing them that the vision you’re setting forward is what they should spend their time on. It’s very hard to build influence when you don’t have a strong relationship with those people, and it’s very hard to build from scratch a relationship through technology.
Of course, I’ve seen it done. I’ve heard about the spouses who’ve met playing computer games and things like that, but I am a big proponent, for example, of remote workers. I’ve had people on my team, even m anagers, who work remotely from the office, but we always do set the expectation that in the first few months you’re going to spend over 50 percent of your time in the office traveling. Once you build those connections, then you can start coming in maybe on a quarterly basis, but it’s really important to build that foundational set of relationships so that you can work effectively with people and do your job.
Schawbel: I really like what Erin just said, actually. I think that rings true. I’ve worked from home for eight years, so I think this is one of the biggest discussions that is going to come out of this book because in the Virgin Pulse study of over 2,000 managers and employees in 10 countries, everyone talks about the positive side of working remotely. Getting freedom, flexibility to do work, when, where, and how you want almost on your terms, as long as you follow through and you have a good connection with your team and everyone’s notified of what you’re doing. But there’s the dark side. The dark side is, without enough human contact, if you work from home and you’re not good at self-management, it can be very isolating.
So, we found that if you work remotely, you’re much less likely to say you want a long-term career at your company. The reason is the loneliness that is created from working remotely full-time. I think, for me, if I don’t see my business partners for several months, I’m not as connected to the organization as a result, but we do events every quarter, we have a call every Monday. I feel like I’m part of something because of those connections, those reminders, the idea sharing. It’s like you need all these touchpoints to constantly remind you of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and who you’re doing it with and why they’re important to you.
Thomas: So, Dan, in staying with what you were just talking about—frequent contact and calls and in-person events. When you think about what the antidote is to this issue of isolation and maybe the attendant loneliness that comes with it, what do you see as most effective, and what did you find in your research?
Schawbel: This is really interesting. The biggest thing that gets in the way of in-person communication in the workplace is email. We rely so much on email, yet a study in the Harvard Business Review found that one face-to-face conversation is more successful than 34 emails exchanged back and forth. So, instead of just praying to God that people understand what you’re saying through email, you just walk 4 feet to someone’s office and explain what you mean.
So, I think that we—especially leaders—are relying on technology as a crutch because maybe it’s convenient or we’re addicted to it because we use it in our personal lives as well, in place of the human connection that helps build strong bonds and a healthy work environment, and can actually, in many cases, get things done quicker. But I will say this caveat: if you’re just trying to remind one of your coworkers that a meeting is taking place in a half hour, I think sending a text is completely appropriate. You don’t have to go to their office or hop on a video conference; keep it simple in that regard. If something’s more serious, if it’s a one-on-one meeting that you have, I think video conferencing, an in-person meeting, or at least a phone call can be much more effective because you can convey yourself better.
Thomas: Anything you can add to that, Erin?
Yang: I would just agree on all fronts. It’s finding the right technology to use for the type of communication you’re trying to have. Now that Slack is super popular, that’s definitely been something that’s heavily used for the things you don’t want to let die in an email inbox and things that are a little bit more urgent, but maybe you don’t need to actually call someone about. So, having those options is great. It’s just about making sure people are using them for the appropriate situations.
Thomas: I’m curious, do you see within the younger cohort, the millennial generation, a resistance to picking up the phone or those face-to-face interactions? Do you think that’s less natural for some folks?
Schwabel: I think it’s absolutely a trend. I mean, no one I know besides my dad who is 75, my grandma who is going to be 99 next year, leave voicemail. It just doesn’t happen. People would just rather text; they think it’s more efficient, and that’s fine. I mean, I don’t have a strong opinion against that—even my mom actually, uses text too much. The Apple Store taught her how to create an emoji and she sends I think, like, a million hearts a day.
So, it’s not just millennials. It’s all age groups because older individuals have to communicate with younger ones. They’re adopting that behavior and the technology is kind of forcing that behavior on them because technology wants you to become addicted because Apple and Google and all those companies benefit as you use it. It’s easy to misuse technology because we’re constantly using it and people sleep with their phones and that affects their sleep and their morning.
If technologies disrupt your sleep, you end up being more isolated in the workplace. Even in the workplace, more and more people are just eating lunch at their desks. Socialization is kind of at an all-time low. Only 20 percent of companies have social events for their employees off-site, yet, what we found in the study it’s the number one way to create a more socialized, connected, engaged workplace, especially in a world where 85 percent of the global workforce is either disengaged or actively disengaged. So, one of the things that Erin talks about in the book is, how do we create a better employee experience? How do we bring people closer together? Whether you’re using technology or not, the touchpoints are so effective, and allowing people to be part of the process and more collaborative. I thought that really stood out.
Thomas: So, speak to that, Erin. That sense of fostering community or relationship-building, however you think about it, what do you think works and is most important?
Yang: I definitely think the quote that’s in Dan’s book [about creating a better employee experience] is around being pulled into a process of something that often…facilities and office decisions often get made outside of the employees who are doing other jobs, but what I got to participate in was the build-out of our San Francisco office. I think we wanted to set the tone there in terms of an office that really matched more of the millennial culture that we are hoping to attract there.
Thomas: The way we wanted to work.
Yang: Yeah, exactly. So, I got tapped along with a couple of other folks who were not facilities experts to just go and meet with the design teams and share what did we really need out of a workplace. We were able to influence things from colors to what types of meeting rooms we needed, what size of meeting rooms we needed, having a slide that connected one floor to another, all of that. That made me much more invested in the outcome and in using that space effectively once it was done as well.
Then to Dan’s point, I’m very surprised to hear that only 20 percent of companies do off-sites and social events because that’s a huge thing here. I always highly recommend that as a way to get people out of meeting rooms, get people out of the office, and do something that you want to do with your friends. Go and blow glass. I know that’s something one team did once. We had a really successful food tour in San Francisco where we all bonded over our favorite foods . Just reminding yourself of the human-ness of the people you work with—who you’re often just Slacking or emailing—I think it’s just so effective to get out of the office and spend non-work personal time together.
Schawbel: I want to just add on to that. We spent so much of our lives working, at least one-third of our entire lives working, and yet a lot of people have trouble making friends at work. And we’re spending, in America, 47 hours a week working on average. Half of the workforce has 5 or fewer friends, and 7 percent have zero friends globally. If you have a bad work experience and you don’t have strong relationships, that’s going to carry over to your personal life. It’s not like you have a bad day at work and you come home and you’re excited and you’re pleasant to be around with your siblings, parents, husband or wife, or friends. That carries over. At the same time, if your personal life isn’t going well, or you’re suffering in some capacity, you bring that into the workplace. So, we have to be empathetic as leaders and meet people where they are and understand that people have personal lives, too.
Actually, we just did a study and found that over 75 percent of the global workforce doesn’t have enough time to do personal-related activities because they’re so busy working. Not having your phone is the new vacation. We’re always kind of working. So at least do work that’s meaningful to you and has an impact; and then do it with people that you want to work with and who are supportive of you.
Thomas: When I listen to you both talking about this, I also think about my own experience—that I almost have two different kinds of networks at work, if you will. There are the people that are really there almost as social support; the people whose time I really enjoy and hopefully they enjoy mine. Then there’s the people where it’s a little bit more about getting work done and that I need to have a relationship with because we work together. I think they’re both really important. The people that I work with, it struck me a couple of times, that if I don’t maintain those relationships, if I don’t work at it, then when it comes time to do work, I’m at a disadvantage because we don’t have that rapport, we don’t have that human connection that you were talking about, Erin. So, it’s just so critical to the way that things actually get done in the workplace.
Yang: I think it gets set from leadership in many companies. It’s just reminding me of one of our very senior leaders in the company. He used to, and I think he still does, come and talk to new managers and say, “If you’re talking to your employees, where would you guess that work should fall on your priority list?” Of course, coming from a senior leader, they’re like, “Oh, at the very top.” He’s like, “No. Number one should be your health. You can’t be effective at work if you’re not physically healthy. Number two is your family. You need to take care of your family first and then number three is work.” So, that just set a very clear example from leadership that it’s not all about work; there’s a human element that you can’t ignore that everyone brings to work every day.
Thomas: Dan, what would you add in terms of what’s important for leadership to think about in terms of fostering connection, reducing isolation?
Schawbel: In the book, I talk about that trust is number one; you have to instill trust and the best way to do that is to be open and honest with what’s actually happening in the company. If things are bad, you talk about the bad things within legal limits. If things are good, you celebrate the victories. Number two is belonging. People want to feel like they belong to something—a group, a team, a company—and so you want to include people in their opinion, so they can freely share and feel like what they’re saying has an impact and matters. That leads to number three: purpose. People want a higher purpose. They want to know that they’re not just a cog in the wheel, that they’re not just doing routine tasks every day, that the work they’re doing has meaning and can affect the team, the manager, the company, customers, and maybe even the world as a whole. That’s really, really important.
I think by focusing on those three, you can make a real impact on people. Then the final one is happiness. If people are not happy, if they don’t feel comfortable being in their own skin in the workplace, they’re not going to be as effective and they’re more likely to search for another job. I think what it means is, people feel comfortable being themselves and they have a leader that creates a safe space so they’re able to actually accomplish that.
Google did project Aristotle and they looked at what makes for the most highly effective teams, and it was creating a safe space so people didn’t feel scared to share new ideas, and instead encouraging idea sharing, because when you do that, you have big breakthroughs.
Thomas: Erin, those four things that Dan just mentioned—trust, belonging, purpose, happiness—those are not work terms in so many ways. It’s not profitability. It’s about that humanity.
Yang: Exactly. Yeah.
Thomas: Wrapping up—if someone’s listening, they are in leadership or maybe they’re not, maybe they’re just an employee who’s looking to that next step in their career and how to be best engaged—what advice would you give them or what would you say? Starting with you, Erin.
Yang: What comes to mind is something that our co-founders at Workday have talked about in the leadership summits that we do every year, and I think they use the acronym MBWA—Manage by Walking Around. It’s a bit of a tactic, but it also represents the importance of humanity, talking to people, the face time, how important it is to be on the same plane literally as the people on your team. I’ve seen that actually occur. I’ve seen our senior leaders take one building a weekday just to get a sense of how things are going and say, “Hello.” If there are any issues that could surface more casually through those sorts of interactions, people don’t feel like they need to use technology to reach out and probably not get an answer. I just love the sentiment that that exudes, and I think it’s a very simple thing that people leaders can do.
Thomas: I think it also comes back to that notion that there’s a place for technology and there’s a place for the human touch. There may be things that people are more willing to talk about face-to-face to avoid the possible “If I drop this in an email it might elevate it somehow,” but if I can run into you and talk about this, it’s a different story sometimes.
Thomas: Dan, what about you? What advice would you offer?
Schawbel: People want to be seen, heard, and understood. So, next time you’re sending an email or text message, be conscious about the message you’re trying to convey and how it could come off—if the technology is the best medium to convey that message. The book is really a reminder. The cover has a name tag, it’s like, despite all this new technology, we have to embrace our humanity because that’s what’s going to separate us and allow us to connect in a human fashion to the people we work. The more friends you have at work, the happier you’ll be, the more excited you’ll be when you’re doing projects with them. It’s very easy to leave an acquaintance—someone who you don’t have a strong relationship with—but very hard to leave a work family. I really want to promote more socialization in the workplace and then have leaders be more conscious of how they’re communicating and which platform they’re using at what time.
Let technology lead you to that meeting, also let technology remove some of the tedious tasks that you don’t even want to do. I think that is the beauty of the artificial intelligence transition in our work cultures right now. But how that frees up time, that time should be spent on connecting and communicating with employees so that everyone’s on the same page and focused on accomplishing the same goals in order to achieve a common mission.
Thomas: Well, thank you both for joining us. I’m Greg Thomas. You’ve been listening to the Workday podcast where we’ve been talking with Erin Yang and Dan Schawbel. Thank you both for joining us.
Yang: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.