Apps Designed To Connect Workplaces Could Be Doing The Opposite

If your workplace is anything like mine, you spend a lot of your day moving between more apps than you can count. I'll chime in on a Slack thread, send off an email to a client, pop onto Google Meet for a conference call, pull up a billing report on QuickBooks, check out a prospective hire on LinkedIn, and respond to a quick text before consulting Monday to figure out what task deserves my attention next. 

I know these business tools are supposed to make my life easier, and make me and my employees fitter, happier, more productive. And there are plenty of times when they do, and that's great. 

But there are days when I just want to say: enough already! At these moments, it feels like all of these digital "solutions" are becoming a problem -- and that I'm working for them more than the other way around. 

After all, I'm supposed to be running a marketing shop, not a data-processing center. I've felt this way for a while. But it was only recently that I figured out how, exactly, our tech stack sometimes leads us astray. And it comes down to this. 



Where's the Humanity? 

The whole purpose of digital business tools -- whether it's an accounting software, an eCommerce platform, or a time-management app -- is to free us up to do things that computers can't do. And again, used properly, they can achieve that goal and then some. Yet they can also cause us to think and act more like apps than like people. And who wants that? 

I'll use my own company as an example. We're a creative agency. For us to do our job well, we need to engage with broad concepts, nurture actual human relationships, and generate work that is both creatively fresh and strategically on-point. 

These are not the kinds of things you can "optimize for" with colorful software and new messaging apps. These are activities that demand human capacities like imagination, storytelling, persuasion, and even drama. And I'm sorry, but it's hard to raise anyone's heartrate or change anyone's mind with a Slack message. 

“Mowing the Nose” 

This is a pet phrase that I came up with after a trip to France. I visited a winery that featured this enormous image of the Mona Lisa cut into the lawn. There was a worker in the field whose only job it was to trim the part of the grass depicting the Mona Lisa's nose. He had no idea it was part of this massive, iconic image. He was just mowing the nose. 

Digital business tools can make it really easy for us to adopt this kind of "mowing the nose" mindset about our own work. They divide the day up into dozens of micro-tasks that bear little relation to each other or the bigger picture. And for a creative company like mine, the big picture is actually all that matters. 

Our clients are expecting a result -- a high-impact media campaign, beautifully-designed brand visuals, or whatever it might be. That result is all that matters. And get lost in the process is a really good way to lose sight of that goal to the detriment of the work. 

The Tech Gets in the Way 

I can't tell you how many times I've seen a team use Slack to kick around an idea over the course of hours, when all that was needed was a five-minute talk and three follow-up questions.

At the same time, I've been on 20-person Google Meet calls that didn't require my presence -- or the presence of half of the other people. We joined in mainly because we could. But had that been an in-person meeting, there would have been five people in the room -- and the result would have been exactly the same. 

I don't know what to call these situations, but "productive" or "optimal" isn't it. Just saying. 

So should we get rid of all of the digital tools that have come to define our work lives? No, who would suggest that? These things can be absolute life-savers, and I'm the first to admit it. They can connect eight different people across three continents for a last-minute brainstorming meeting -- and enable us to keep the conversation going on Slack for days afterward. They can help a single person manage a massive, complex project without dropping a single task or missing a single deadline. 

But if you're not careful, these kinds of perfect use cases can become the exception, and not the norm. 

If you're waiting for some grand solution to this problem, I can't help you. My point is just this: It's time we recognize that every new software tool aimed at maximizing something -- efficiency, productivity, time management, resource allocation -- almost always minimizes something else, or at least detracts from it. And a lot of times, that something else is our humanity, our creativity, and our connectedness.

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