Why Adding a Human Layer Is the Key to the “Great Reset”

What good are the latest tech innovations if people are stressed out of their minds?

Westend61 / Getty Images
Westend61 / Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything about the way we live and work. And as Felix Salmon reports for Axios, it’s also going to fundamentally change the foundation of our economy like no recession that has come before. “The pandemic is striking directly at the heart of what has historically made America stronger than almost any other global economy — our awesome productivity,” he writes. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom predicts productivity drops within companies of five and even 10%. “These falls are not surprising,” Bloom says, “but are absolutely massive.” 

The reason it’s not surprising is because productivity is not just about technology. It’s also about people. And right now, people are stressed out of their minds. “People are living at work,” Deloitte’s Abby Levine says. “That has a physical, emotional, and mental impact.” In fact, a survey released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 40% of adults reported experiencing mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression.  

This is why we need to widen the discussion about what life and work are going to look like after the pandemic. We know the old model isn’t coming back — it was already breaking down when the pandemic hit. But what that “new normal” will look like isn’t inevitable. We have the power to shape it ourselves, and build a new and better normal based on how humans really operate and what makes us thrive.  

Steep productivity drops are not inevitable. Nor are burnout and mental health problems. But to avoid them, companies will need to do more than just put in place organizational strategies and efficiencies for collaborating remotely or sharing office space safely, with things like contact tracing, agile shift management dashboards, tech-infused elevator protocols and vibrating social distancing apps. Safety is obviously the priority. But to truly navigate the kind of constant change and disruption that will define our future, companies need to pay as much attention to the human element as they do to advanced technologies.

The World Economic Forum published a paper in July entitled “Digital Transformation: Powering the Great Reset.” But those who think that the “Great Reset” can be powered exclusively by digital transformation are missing the fact that there can be no “Great Reset” unless people are able to hit the reset button within themselves. 

That starts with giving people the tools they need to support and nurture their own well-being and mental resilience so they can operate from a place of strength and navigate change in their daily lives. This was always important, but now it’s imperative. And if companies don’t prioritize these human values and make them a core part of their culture, new technologies that enhance safety and productivity, however impressive and necessary, will not be enough. 

In times of crisis, uncertainty and turmoil, like the ones that we are going through right now, our inner resilience is our most important resource. That has to be the bedrock on which we build our new normal. Companies realize that qualities like focus, empathy, collaboration and inclusion are essential to win the future. But we can’t simply flip a switch and turn those qualities on. To access our creativity and ability to innovate in the middle of uncertainty and chaos around us, our immediate emotional needs have to be met first. We can’t create and implement new solutions for the future if we are struggling to simply get through the day. 

We all have treasures inside us — amazing insights, original ideas, needle-moving solutions to previously unsolvable problems. Those treasures are the building blocks of productivity. But we can’t tap into them when we are as anxious and stressed as most people are right now. And that’s because of how we’re built. Yale neuroscientist Amy Arnsten studies how our brains respond to stress. When we’re faced with a threat, our brain’s prefrontal cortex — the region that governs our “higher functions,” like our ability to focus, think critically and make decisions — actually shuts down. The release of stress-related chemicals make our more “primitive brain systems” more dominant. These are the more reactive, impulsive parts of our brain that protect us from harm — from a danger immediately in front of us. But when the danger persists for months, it becomes much harder to operate from the more thoughtful part of our brain from which creative decisions are made.  

That’s why creativity is hard to flourish when we’re in a perpetual fight-or-flight mode. We can’t be empathetic, inclusive, open to new ideas and see alternative perspectives when we can’t see past the next hour. Real inspiration, breakthroughs and deep, sustained focus can only happen when we’re in the calm eye of the hurricane — when we’re recharged and engaged, not at the mercy of our survival instincts. That’s when the creative rather than reactive parts of our minds can come to the surface. 

Thriving — both professionally and personally — isn’t about requiring the external world around us to be exactly as we want it to be. It’s about creating pathways of connection to our inner resources, those treasures inside us that enable us to handle whatever the external world throws our way. Ultimately, all technology is about humans and what the technology allows us to do. So does it allow us to be our best selves, and unlock our uniquely human qualities? Does it augment our humanity, or diminish it?

A company is only as resilient as its people. If employees are anxious, reactive and burned out, every business metric — from productivity to attrition to customer success — will be affected. That’s why people need to be at the center of whatever re-entry plans or digital transformation strategies companies are formulating right now. And for all businesses, small and large, focusing on the upskilling and reskilling of their employees, it is more important than ever to include the human skills of resilience and stress management in the upskilling. 

Sure, it’s great to use cutting-edge online teamwork software, create virtual stages for presentations, build customized workflow systems, optimize distributed workforces, have the latest in video meeting technologies and all the other marvels that are now more critical than ever. But what about the humans using all those optimized workforce systems? Are the humans optimized? We can see them showing up in the “participant list” of our video conferencing dashboards, but are they bringing their whole selves to work? And how much of their wisdom, empathy and creativity are showing up with them? 

In some ways, what’s going on is a category error. Technology has focused so long on trying to create human-like A.I. and machine learning that we’ve forgotten that humans are actually not like machines at all. Humans can’t just flip a switch and operate at peak performance. 

But we do know what does make humans operate at their best, whether we’re working at home or going into the office: when we’re not “on” 24/7; when we’re able to say goodbye to our workday and get adequate sleep; when we’re able to take even just 60-second breaks between meetings during the day, which neuroscience tells us helps us to course-correct from stress and prevent it from becoming cumulative; when we’re able to connect meaningfully with friends and family; when we don’t feel like we have to choose between being successful in our jobs and happy in our lives; when we’re able to find moments to pause to think, explore, follow our passions or experience joy. That’s the human layer — it’s what allows us to be productive in all parts of our lives and make the most of the amazing technology available to us.

That’s not to say technology doesn’t have an important role to play in maximizing the human factor. Indeed, paradoxically, technology can even help us erect boundaries with technology — especially barriers to protect us from our addiction to our phones, social media and all the distractions that sap our attention and drain our productivity. Technology becomes truly game-changing when it helps us build resilience and works to augment our humanity. And that’s why at Thrive we’ve used cutting-edge technology to build a behavior change enterprise product that can help employees to recharge, fuel, focus and connect through small incremental Microsteps and inspiring storytelling. That includes building a dashboard for management to measure the mental resilience and emotional well-being of employees to identify and address the factors leading to workplace burnout and distress — leading indicators to all the lagging business metrics.

We’re at one of those moments of deep discontinuity — when one system falls away and another takes its place. The pandemic sped up our future, accelerating trends that were already forcing us to come up with a new definition of productivity built around what we know allows people to reach their highest potential. As we reopen and re-enter, we need to reimagine and rebuild the relationship between employees and companies — and at the heart of that is helping employees rebuild the relationship with themselves. Creating the conditions for people to operate from a place of strength, calm, empathy and resilience should be on the list of every company’s plans for both the short term and the long term. Without also prioritizing the human factor, digital transformation and external productivity tools, no matter how sophisticated, will never be enough.

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