As We Re-enter the Workplace, Technology Alone Isn’t Going to Save Us

Let’s shift the conversation to focus on the human aspects of re-entry.

nito100 / Getty Images
nito100 / Getty Images

The belief that technology will save us, always deeply ingrained in our culture, is especially dominant now. As we look ahead to re-entering offices and other public places, workplaces and real estate providers are outbidding each other to come up with the most innovative tech-infused offerings that will reinvent these physical spaces: touchless doorway access, light timers that count to 20 while we wash our hands, voice-activated elevator banks, knee-operated sinks, hand sanitizer stations, and much more.

And of course all these tech solutions are really important for our physical safety. But in many ways, these new gadgets and tech protocols will be the easiest part of working and living in the next normal. The indispensable — and more challenging — thing left out of so many discussions is our mental and emotional state as we step forward. Because there is no device that can give us the resilience we’ll need to thrive in a fundamentally different world, and no tech solution for how to interact effectively and compassionately with one another. Personal interactions are already becoming more difficult to navigate. How do we deal with people who don’t wear masks or come too close to our personal space? What happens when the new social norms we are establishing are not about etiquette, but about our very safety and health?

One of my favorite insights about the pandemic is from Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who writes that it is “a gateway between one world and the next,” and we have the choice to “walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

So one piece of luggage we really need to leave behind is the false belief that technology will save us and that we can treat ourselves like always-on machines. Before the pandemic, we paid a heavy price for this collective delusion. And it would be a terrible missed opportunity if we decided to pay an even heavier price by believing that machines are going to save us now.

In Global Burnout, the Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot, who called burnout “the disease of civilization,” writes about “the climate of optimism that has surrounded technological development. Machines would liberate us from labor. They would toil in our stead. They would allow us to reclaim time, that supreme commodity.” 

Instead, our dependence on technology has created “a new type of servitude,” demanding our attention, monopolizing our time, increasing our stress and leaving us staring mindlessly into our screens. The promise of liberation was a false one. “Time itself is accelerating. The complexity of the system staggers us. And leisure is often a costly diversion.”

This is our opportunity to get it right. As we enter the next normal, we can update our view of the human operating system. We can remind ourselves that downtime is a feature, not a bug. That more than ever, we need to be in charge of our technology — not the other way around. 

And as we reap the benefits of the technological wonders that will help us stay safe and healthy in the next normal, we need to add a human layer. 

That means fundamentally reimagining our work culture to build mental resilience at its core. It means moving from a burnout culture to a culture of sustained productivity and performance with well-being at the center. It means trading a “check your life at the door” mentality for true work-life integration and mental and emotional support. And it means moving from a workplace that works for some to an empathetic and inclusive workplace that works for all. 

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