Video conferencing platforms, social media, instant-messaging apps and smartphone-accessed email: Within the last 24 hours, you’ve probably used at least one, if not all, of these tools. Technology is a fixture of our workplace environment, and while it brings big benefits, it also comes with constant distractions. How can we adapt to workplace technology as a necessity while still fostering relationships with colleagues and coworkers?

To find out, we spoke with Erica Keswin, author of “Bring Your Human to Work: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Design a Workplace That’s Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World.” As a workplace strategist, consultant and former executive recruiter, Keswin shares her best strategies for nurturing human connections in today’s fast-paced, digital world. 

‘Being human’ and building relationships with technology in the workplace 

Keswin has a lifelong passion for bringing people together, calling herself a “connector.” She emphasizes the importance of “being human” at work, which means focusing on relationships. 

“[Being human means] honoring those relationships with your colleagues and your boss; with the people who work for you; with your clients [and] customers and also … with yourself,” Keswin says. “It’s about bringing the best version of who you are [to work].”

Keswin explains that workers who don’t feel connected, visible and engaged are much more likely to leave. Today, people seek a sense of purpose in what they do and a deeper professional bond with their employer. Strengthening “human” interactions on the job can help build these bonds, while preventing talent, productivity and morale from being lost to turnover.

What’s more, relationships can only thrive in a psychologically safe workplace: a communicative, supportive workplace environment where everyone feels comfortable voicing concerns. The ability to give and receive constructive feedback is a hallmark of a strong relationship, whether personal or professional, and creates a happier, more productive climate.

However, she notes, technology in the workplace has fundamentally disrupted these connections, transforming the way people interact with one another and the world. As the reliance on these workplace technologies to enable remote work continues to grow, it’s all the more important to be aware of these disruptions in order to avoid abandoning human connection altogether. 

Use technology in the workplace to enhance — not replace — human interactions

Rather than letting technology in the workplace replace interpersonal relationships, it should be used to complement or facilitate them, Keswin says. The trick is to balance the benefits of technology with the human side of work; this is what Keswin calls finding the “sweet spot.” 

“Left to our own devices, we’re not connecting,” she explains. “How do we intentionally leverage all that's amazing about technology to strengthen relationships, [while also putting] technology ‘in its place’ to deepen our relationships in other ways?” 

Start with some small changes, like introducing a human element in virtual meetings. One easy rule for managers to implement is that everyone keeps the video feed in their conferencing platform turned on “to remember there’s a person behind that device,” Keswin says. Not only does seeing everyone’s faces make teams feel more engaged, but it also helps replicate the conditions of an in-person meeting as much as possible.

Keswin also recommends having a rotating greeter for each virtual meeting: someone who gets online a few minutes early and welcomes each participant as they sign on. This helps facilitate the “watercooler conversation” that happens before in-person meetings, but is often lost in remote gatherings. 

Bring company values to life 

Keswin believes people forge deeper connections at work when they share the same values, such as creativity, teamwork and giving back. Finding common values helps unite workers across the organization, building a sense of shared mission and purpose. However, companies need to do more than just talk about their values — leaders and managers also need to demonstrate them in action, and communicate what they mean for different roles and teams. 

Keswin calls this, “taking values off the walls and into the halls;” make sure workers understand how to implement company values and use them to guide their decisions and behavior. For instance, at a company that values creativity, leaders might encourage employees to propose outside-the-box initiatives or collaborate across teams that don’t typically work together. 

While values are an essential part of being human — and are something technology can’t replicate — companies can use tech to help demonstrate and share these principles. Keswin gives the example of a company that started a Slack channel where employees could post every time they saw a coworker enacting one of their values. 

Keswin calls this “a living, breathing repository of their culture,” providing real-life examples of values in action. It’s also a powerful onboarding tool to demonstrate codes and ethics for new hires. 

Prioritize ‘human sustainability’

Another key to a healthy workplace is what Keswin calls “human sustainability:” the ability for workers to balance their personal and professional responsibilities. It’s up to employers to support and encourage this by offering options such as flexible scheduling — and workplace technology can be used to facilitate this. 

Flexible scheduling allows workers the time they need to tackle personal tasks, spend time with family or simply honor their biorhythms, provided they can still meet their job requirements. This model allows employers to demonstrate that they honor and trust workers’ abilities to manage multiple responsibilities, says Keswin. 

Today’s technologies allow employees to stay connected to their work long after business hours, especially at companies offering part- or full-time remote work options. While the added flexibility can introduce a number of benefits for both employer and employee, the lines between work and life outside “the office” can become increasingly blurred, making it that much harder for employees to unplug. 

Making these options work for everyone requires clear expectations and guidelines: employees need to get their tasks done from wherever they are, but employers shouldn’t expect them to be on-call at all times. To keep everyone accountable, managers can lay out more formal guidelines around working hours, or encourage employees to share appointments and planned absences on the team calendar to help normalize the separation between work and everything else. 

The move toward human sustainability is “a huge shift,” Keswin says, but it’s one that she recommends employers embrace — or risk losing top talent to others who do. 

Begin nurturing a more human workplace today 

No matter the size or location of your team, you can take steps now to build relationships and nurture human interactions in your workplace, even virtually. Make sure team leaders are practicing the values you preach and encouraging workers to balance their personal and professional lives. 
Workplace technologies have the ability to support human interactions and fill in the gap when in-person meetings aren’t possible, a more common reality in today’s workplace environment than ever before. But as Keswin says, humans must remain in control of technology in the workplace — and not the other way around.