Brad Keywell

In an Automated World, Human Connections Can Still Thrive

By Brad Keywell and Adam Waytz, Associate Professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The daily commute on the Purple Line “El” train, between downtown Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, is a virtually “human-free” experience.

But while such automation is a modern marvel, the downside is a loss of social connections — and value opportunities — when workers and customers “miss” one another. Successful organizations will need to address this disconnect and rehumanize the digital era.

To ride the Purple Line, for example, commuters purchase a Ventra card at a vending machine and then touch the card to a separate sensor machine, which deducts money from a digital wallet. If the digital wallet does not contain enough money to cover the fare, the card automatically accesses a connected bank account that replenishes the money on the card. Digital signs at the train station display waiting times for each train, and train doors open and close automatically. Unless one boards or exits at the front of the train, the train operator remains out of sight.

Given the amount of time people spend on their daily commute reading, listening to music, or playing on smart phones, it is unlikely they spend time focusing on the people who make the commute possible. After all, research by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder suggests that people avoid engaging with fellow train passengers. So there is little chance they even want to consider the engineers, operators, analysts, programmers, track workers, and machinists responsible for this amazing feat of modern transportation. On the flip side, many of the workers who make the commute possible have few opportunities to encounter the millions of people who benefit from their work.

Modern technology has enabled humans to master feats of manufacturing, transportation, construction, and systems design that would have been unimaginable just two decades ago. However, the cost of this innovation has been large-scale dehumanization, whereby people no longer engage with one another over the course of a productive process. From the inception of an idea about how to improve people’s lives to the realized effect of a product or service, humans are surprisingly disconnected.

When workers and customers “miss” one another, what opportunities are missed as well? An emerging body of research suggests the psychological, productive, and even economic toll is substantial.

One upshot is that people work harder when they feel connected to those who benefit from their work. This was illustrated in research by the psychologist Adam Grant, who studied everyone from call center workers and engineers to firefighters, medical technicians, and salespeople. In fact, employees often place greater care in their work when another person’s well-being is at stake. In one of Grant’s studies, he placed signs at hospital hand washing stations imploring doctors to wash their hands. When the signs contained a prosocial message (“hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases”), doctors washed their hands more often than when the signs contained a personal message (“hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”).

Another set of studies illustrates how merely considering the customer enhances work quality. the operations researchers Ryan Buell, Chia-Jung Tsay, and Tami Kim found that when chefs were able to observe customers waiting for their orders (via an iPad equipped with videoconferencing software), they produced better quality food (as rated by the customers).

But that’s not all — when customers at a dining-hall sandwich station observed the workers preparing their food (compared to when they simply placed a sandwich order and picked it up subsequently), they enjoyed the experience more, developing an appreciation for the productive process. Related work led by marketing researcher Stijn Van Osselaer, provides evidence for “the handmade effect” — people prefer purchasing products (e.g., scarves, wine glasses) when they know the products are human-made. Van Osselaer found that people perceive that the human-made products are made “with love.”

These studies suggest that focusing workers on a human “end user” motivates them to work harder, while focusing customers on the “first author” of a product or service enhances satisfaction. Increased reliance on automation eliminates these opportunities. Furthermore, the chain from first author to end user contains many human links. And these must be coordinated effectively. In the rail transportation process, for example, coordinating data analysts, mechanics, operators, track workers, and safety managers is critical. Though many will never meet one another personally. Automation creates psychological distance between these important links and hampers communication.

So how can organizations rehumanize the productive process? Digital collaboration tools, such as video conferencing, can link separated workers and designers during the creation phase. To connect workers to end users, mere reminders of how workers’ labor benefits others can be effective. Grant suggests that in-person, written, or video testimonials from grateful customers motivate employees, whether they are Olive Garden waiters and waitresses or Wells Fargo bankers. Other organizations task employees with figuring out their impact on others. For example, accounting firm KPMG, launched an initiative called Higher Purpose that asked employees to develop posters describing how their work had social impact. In posing this question, employees were able to frame seemingly dehumanizing tasks like auditing and financial risk management as “combating terrorism: (i.e., KPMG provides oversight so that financial institutions avoid money laundering to terrorist organizations) and “championing democracy” (i.e., KPMG audited the voting procedure for South Africa’s first democratic election when Nelson Mandela won). The impact on other humans was clear, and employee engagement skyrocketed as a result.

Companies have done far less to humanize the productive process for customers (and researchers have done less work on this as well). We suggest that operational transparency is key. Customers like knowing who is working for them (or simply that anyone is working for them). Simply reminding customers of the actual human beings supporting their product or experience will drive a greater sense of connection. On Chicago’s Purple Line, for example, those distracted commuters might enjoy their experience more if posters and placards pointed out the human care and effort that make their travel so easy.

To humanize the links in the productive process from person to person, we suggest incentivizing engagement explicitly, with monetary rewards for people who go out of their way to connect with others. Even more boldly, some companies such as Pret a Manger, the sandwich chain, incentivize connections by giving employees bonuses that they must spend on others rather than themselves, an exercise that has been shown to enhance teamwork.

Thanks to digital technologies, everything from driving directions to cashing a check has become seamless, frictionless, and human-free. But such experiences need not be dehumanizing. By focusing on ways to rehumanize the productive process from first author to end user, organizations and consumers can produce even greater value.

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© Brad Keywell 2021