Is digital transformation increasing executive isolation?
Social networks and tech communication tools were designed to make us more connected as human beings, more efficient as thinkers and workers. But have they succeeded? Or are they actually making us more isolated and lonely?
Facebook’s stated objective is “to give people the power to share, and make the world a more open and connected place.'' LinkedIn says its mission is simple, “Connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.”
Slack is a ‘collaboration hub’ that promises to ‘Make work life simpler, more pleasant and more productive, helping organizations connect their teams, unify their systems, and drive their business forward.’Steve Jobs said Apple’s raison d’etre was, ‘To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.’
In spite of their developers’ best intentions, digital tools such as these may be having the opposite effect, leading to fewer meaningful interpersonal interactions, less free time, and increasing loneliness — not least, at the management and C-suite level.
The negative impact of digital transformation
Much has been written about how the self-esteem and mental well-being of the young is being negatively affected by social media, instant messaging and the smartphone. Less thought has been devoted to the ways in which digital communication and social media platforms are affecting the professional and personal lives of more mature users.
Those in upper management positions report spiraling pressure to maintain polished online presences, with LinkedIn the pivotal platform. Executives are expected to post news and craft intelligent thought leadership pieces. They’re also pressured to post on company intranets detailing their teams’ latest successes, causing anxiety over always having something to boast about — when in fact, sales records, innovations and other newsworthy occurrences take patience and effort to achieve.
A classic Catch 22, these time-consuming tasks eat up a leader’s bandwidth, preventing them from concentrating on motivating employees and spearheading the initiatives that lead to newsworthy performance.
Thanks to technology, work follows us everywhere — it’s impossible to switch off and difficult to achieve work/life balance. The situation is acute for expatriate executives at Singapore’s 37,000 international companies. Working far from head office, they are already isolated, and often deal with time differences that result in double shifts, communicating with colleagues overseas late into the night, further depleting quality time with family and friends.
A 2019 survey by InterNations found that 25% of international hires were planning to leave their overseas postings early, the most common reason cited (14%) being loneliness. Access to professional networking was named by 30% of respondents as a service they wished their company would provide. While Singapore was rated highly for a sense of ‘Feeling At Home’ (6th globally), expats said building social networks was difficult — on ‘Finding Friends’, Singapore ranked 24th internationally.
Issues are generally solved far more quickly and effectively via verbal dialogue. But during the standard working day, technology is being used instead of in-person communication. We’re messaging more, but communicating less.
In a 1982 memo entitled ‘How to Write’, legendary ad man David Ogilvy dispensed excellent advice such as, “Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass,” and “Write the way you talk. Naturally.” He finished the 10-point tutorial with this admonition: “If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.” The advice remains relevant — much can be achieved by getting together, whereas time, energy, and nuances such as body language are lost communicating digitally.
Yet we are increasingly discouraged from meeting in person (corporate cost-cutting pressures and the anti-flight environmental movement only exacerbating matters) and instead, to email, message or video conference. It’s not good for business, and it’s not good for us. There are well-documented links between isolation and loneliness — which can so easily result from a digitally focused existence — and health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression and early death. Recent Harvard Business Review studies report over 50% of chief executive officers feeling a sense of loneliness and isolation.
Last year, Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology, media, culture and communication at New York University, wrote in The New York Times that among the key possible causes of increasing loneliness in modern society was “the rise of communications technology, including smartphones, social media and the internet.”
Klineberg argued that while tech companies “pledged that their products would help create meaningful relationships and communities”, this has rarely proven to be the case. “Instead, we’ve used the media system to deepen existing divisions, at both the individual and group levels,” he wrote. “We may have thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ on Facebook and Instagram, but when it comes to human relationships, it turns out there’s no substitute for building them the old-fashioned way, in person.”