How workplace technology will get more human: an expert’s view

We’re living in a time when people worry about robots replacing them at work, and lay awake at night wondering what meaning their careers have in the greater scheme of things. A welcome antidote to the worry and dissatisfaction is author, CEO, and digital strategy and human experience pioneer Kate O’Neill. She offers employees a voice of hope and reassurance with her optimistic view of the workplace of the future.

For companies struggling with digital transformation and the workplace experience, O’Neill helps them keep it real. Her latest book, Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans, offers a breath of fresh air to those of us in the rapidly-changing world of work. Her point of view: we have to find alignment between business and humans. That will create a workplace of the future that focuses on holistic approaches to technology and the people who work with it.

Meaning is what matters: human experience in business counts for a lot

In a recent webinar, Envoy’s Head of Workplace Technology, Matt Harris, spoke with O’Neill and discussed the message she’s bringing to companies around the world—that digital transformation should be human-centric.

"Technology is driven by business, and business, for the most part, drives human experiences," O’Neill explained. "And humans crave meaning in our experiences. Meaning is what matters." It makes sense, she believes, to build a workplace of the future that helps humans find meaning in their jobs. The reason isn’t entirely altruistic. Employees who have a sense of purpose tend to be more productive. And companies that can communicate a clear strategic organizational purpose that employees can buy into for themselves are naturally more efficient.

But what does a company’s purpose have to do with workplace technology? "A strategic organizational purpose is what it is your company is trying to do that humans can relate to," O’Neill said. "You should be able to express it in 3 to 5 words. And everything the company does aligns with that."

A good example, O’Neill pointed out, is Disney theme parks. "Their corporate culture and what they’re trying to do could be articulated as Create magical experiences," she told the audience. That simple statement provides employees at every level with a direction for problem-solving, cultural clarity, brand, and allows them to look at digital transformation from a human perspective.

"Their MagicBand, a wearables program, and the infrastructure that goes into that is a huge investment for Disney," O’Neill said, "but it makes sense because it aligns with the purpose. It’s about creating magical experiences."

The workplace of the future and human connection

Thinking about the needs of people, rather than workplace technology, is a way to guide companies on their digital transformation journeys. The world is changing. Transformation is a bigger discussion than which new technology we are going to roll out this year. It means you have to think about what decisions are meaningful to you.

You’ll encounter more profound questions like:

  • How will you use data to inform your decision making?
  • What decisions are meaningful to you as a whole?
  • What are your values and priorities?
  • How can you connect what you do every day to your brand, customers, employees, and culture?
  • How will a human-centric digital transformation inform how you’ll use data and technology?

"Data and technology aren’t going to solve problems until you’ve got the problems articulated that you’re trying to solve," O’Neill advised. "Many organizations are trying to solve technology first instead of answering these foundational questions. And it all comes back to one thing—purpose. All your decisions cascade down from that understanding."

The implication is clear: meaning is everything, and without clarification of the human purpose, your digital transformation could result in no change at all.

Measuring processes, not people

A digital transformation isn’t complete until you’ve taken a hard look at your strategic organizational purpose and how well it matches employee data policies and metrics. O’Neill stressed that a human-centric workplace experience should measure employee performance in a humanistic way.

"The cult of efficiency is concerning," O’Neill said. "Efficiency, as it relates to people, isn’t a good workplace dynamic. It’s better to make people more effective, make their work more productive, or to help them find meaning."

People, she advised, are not efficient. It’s not possible to fairly assess an employee’s performance based on efficiency without measuring the processes the employees must use. "It’s not that efficiency is bad," she’s quick to add, "It’s just not where you need to start when you’re talking about people."

Ultimately, O’Neill said, everyone wants to do something that they’re contributing meaningfully to. It’s critical, however, that employees buy into the organizational purpose and fully understand the meaning of their efforts. And if they can do that, it’s going to be efficient.

A human-centric workplace experience: at what cost?

It’s only natural for companies to balk at the idea of pausing their regular activities to take a look inward. But O’Neill pointed out that the initial cost of slowing down to assess what the company is about could be more than offset by the discoveries you’ll make.

"You might find the need for cessation of some programs or trials that were begun that need to be ended," O’Neill said. "You may see that you’ve been throwing a lot of money at systems that duplicate each other or weren’t the right thing in the long run. But when there is better quality in alignment, those things aren’t really costs. It’s likely to save money."

O’Neill looks into the workplace of the future and sees a sunny place where human experience is valued above technology, digital transformation has human dignity and individuality baked in, and all employees can find meaning in their jobs at any level.

"We will never go wrong if we err on the side of infusing meaning into what we do," she reminded her audience. "We won’t lose money doing that, either. It’s continuously true. The more you focus on interactions, the brand, the workplace, the more effective the organization becomes."

Communicating purpose to customers—remember they’re humans, too

O’Neill stresses the importance of ensuring that customers understand what an organization’s purpose is, too. The same short statement that drives employees to their sense of meaning also connects your company, brand, and products in a human way to the people who buy from you.

In the same way that humans are hard-wired to see faces in inanimate objects, we are also born with an intense need for meaning in all our life experiences, including automated ones. That’s one reason that chatbots’ tones are almost always breezy and casual, and why we all despise robocalls. We urgently need to connect with others, and we’re at our best when we can engage in a two-way dialogue.

"Metaphor and metadata," O’Neill argued, "create just the right amount of tension." She’s talking about taking a human concept and wrapping it in facts. At one point, O’Neill related, AirBNB was working with the phrase "Don’t go there. Live there." The metaphor they created was that Airbnb helps us to experience living in our destination and belonging there, as opposed to being an outside visitor. But how could they back up a feeling with metrics?

"They used a side-by-side comparison of the top 10 places to visit in Paris," she said. "One was from hosts, and the other from TripAdvisor—and they were totally different." TripAdvisor recommended tourist sites (that are highly worthwhile to see), but the Airbnb hosts offered other hidden treasures only locals would know.

"It’s the same city, but you measure raw popularity data versus clout on AirBNB side," she continued. "The metadata corroborates the metaphor. The experience at AirBNB is automated, machine-driven experience, but you need to inject as much meaning into it as you can."

Watch the full video to hear more from Kate O’Neill

Ready to hear more from Kate O’Neill? Check out the full video and delve deeper into human-centric technology, humanist views into employee surveillance and tracking, and how one airline built a humanist brand around a handful of peanuts.