Spring 2022 Digital Workplace Experience Keynote Speaker Douglas Rushkoff

5 Takeaways from the Spring 2022 Digital Workplace Experience Conference

May 10, 2022 Digital Workplace
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

It’s not often that “The Real Housewives of Orange County” is offered up as a metaphor for what’s happening at work.

But that’s exactly what Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media theory at CUNY/Queens and author of the book “Team Human,” did in his opening keynote address at the Digital Workplace Experience event, produced by Reworked from May 5 – 6 online. 

His point? As he watched the reality show that follows the many dramas between a group of wealthy women in Southern California, he noticed something interesting. Much of the conflict on the show stems from simple miscommunication created by overly aggressive plastic surgery.

“The reason they’re having so much trouble communicating is that they can’t make facial expressions that are consonant with what they’re saying,” Rushkoff said. So, in a moment that required an expression of sadness or empathy, the show’s stars found their surgically enhanced faces unable to match their words.

“This was a misapplication of technology,” he said. “In trying to lock down their faces … they were making themselves unavailable to the real moment of what was happening.”

The spring Digital Workplace Experience event, built on the theme "Embracing and Optimizing the Hybrid Workplace," brought together more than 1,200 attendees to attend 15 sessions, including keynotes, workshops and panel discussions featuring executives from REI, Wex, MSCI, Vanguard, Vi and Charles Schwab, among others.

The next event in the yearlong series of virtual conferences, themed "Resilience and Agility in Disruptive Times," takes place Aug. 3 – 4, 2022.

Retain Humanity in an Increasingly Digital Age

Rushkoff elaborated on his "Real Housewives" example with illustrations of how technology in the digital era more often uses humans rather than humans using technology. The result is that we suffer from a technology-fueled lack of trust and treat each other less like real human beings, he said.

In using technology to control and mediate how we appear to the world, he said, “we ultimately make ourselves unavailable to the real work. We make ourselves less human.”

Rushkoff had four recommendations to combat this tendency and instead create a human-driven company in a digital age:

  1. Don't “autotune” people to fit categories. In other words, don't let technology categorize and commoditize people to the point where their voices are no longer authentic.
  2. Retain human core competencies. Focus on not just maintaining but growing the unique value that humans bring to the workplace.
  3. Let data inform, not replace decision making. As AI and machine learning automate work, don't let the machines take over important decisions from human managers.
  4. Compensate for digital disconnection. Research suggests it's key to meet at least once every 18 months to re-establish human connection, Rushkoff said.

Use Technology as a Tool for Good

As companies enter the hybrid era of work, it's important that technology be a purposeful part of their workplace strategies. In that regard, the last two years of virtual working have been a crucial learning opportunity.

In a panel discussion dedicated to exploring how technology can be used to build a sustainable workplace, panelist Shawnté Cox Holland, senior HR business partner at Philadelphia-based financial services firm Vanguard, and until recently the company's head of culture and engagement, expressed a note of optimism.

"This moment has the potential to be the next frontier of inclusion," she said. Over the last two years, "people were more conscious of hierarchy and more conscious of what they said and how they said it. These were good things, so we should include them when moving forward."

So exactly how do organizations reinvent the ways they work and incorporate the lessons learned to ensure more people are involved in workplace conversations and decisions? Panelist Judy Whitcomb, senior vice president at Vi, a Chicago-based operator of senior living communities, said it's important for workplace leaders to be clear about the purpose they are trying to achieve with technology and use it to reinforce corporate culture.

The quality we need most moving forward is adaptability, the panelists agreed. That's especially true as companies ponder returning to the office and implementing a mix of in-person and remote team approaches. The takeaway for leaders: Be thoughtful about how you approach these decisions.

Do you really want employees asking why you made them change out of sweatpants only to find themselves sitting in a cubicle at the office on a Zoom call rather than at home, asked Brendan O'Neill, director of partner and channel strategy at Robin.

"People will vote with their feet if you are not delivering an office space they are benefitting from," he said.

Make Coming Back to the Workplace Worthy

That's a theme keynote speaker Jay Van Bavel picked up in his keynote address on the second day of the conference. Is it even worthwhile to bring employees back into the workplace just because they can come back? Maybe. Maybe not.

The first step to a successful potential return to the workplace? Don’t force the return upon employees if not much will change from remote-work life, said Van Bavel, professor of psychology and neural science and director for the Social Identity and Morality Lab at New York University, in a Q&A session following his address.

“A lot of workers feel coerced to return,” he said. “And that can be bad if what happens when they return – and I've seen it in many workplaces – is they end up coming into their office, closing the door and then doing Zoom meetings all day.”

Bringing employees back into the workplace requires a thoughtful process that gives them good reasons to return. In other words, figure out how your workplace can provide value that life working remotely cannot.

Focus on Meaning to Combat Employee Burnout

Emily Esfahani Smith, author of "The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness," offered advice to conference attendees about how they can overcome the employee burnout that is plaguing their organizations after two-plus years of pandemic working.

Burnout isn't just about overwork, she said. It's about being disengaged and not having a purpose at work. That's one big reason why more paid time off won't fix it. Esfahani Smith offered up four pillars to finding meaning and purpose, at work and elsewhere:

  1. Belonging
  2. Purpose
  3. Storytelling
  4. Transcendence

To put that in practical terms, that means leaders use their megaphone and the power of storytelling to reframe events and find the themes of growth and redemption that lead to more meaning at work, she said.

At the team level, managers can model high-quality connections between people and then facilitate the creation of them amongst staff members. That can be something as simple as taking 30 seconds to a couple of minutes in a meeting to turn over the stage to a teammate, Esfahani Smith said.

Finally, for individual employees who may not have the power of a management position, she recommended engaging in what she called "jobcrafting" at work. Take time to figure out the meaningful aspects of your work and find ways to create more of that in your day-to-day experience, Esfahani Smith said.

Don't Sleep on Security in the Hybrid Workplace

Everyone is experiencing security issues, some are just hiding it well, said information security expert Tarah Wheeler in her keynote "Staying Safe at a Distance: Security in the Age of Remote Work." 

Wheeler is an information security executive, author of the book "Women in Tech," an international security fellow at New America and cyber project fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and CEO of the information security consultancy Red Queen Dynamics. She's written on security issues for the Washington Post, Brookings Institution and is a contributor on cyberwarfare for Foreign Policy. 

We live in a different security era where AI is powering threats at a scale never before possible, Wheeler said. That means that the bad guys are therefore increasing their chances of success. It's only a matter of time before a security breach happens. So what's an organization to do?

The first thing is to stop engaging in "security theater" at your company, she said. Don't simply pretend to take security seriously while not actually doing the job. 

She recommended a series of specific and achievable steps. "It can be as simple as having a simple way for people to communicate security threats to you," Wheeler said.

Most security measures are a result of someone’s mistake, so when a mistake is made use it to create a stronger policy. Don’t simply bury it under the rug, she said. Then, use training as a tool not simply for compliance but to actually help people understand and improve their security posture.

“Most of the time when we train people, we train people badly,” Wheeler said. "You give people bad information in their training. You don’t help them understand in simple terms what the real threats are."

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