Will Technology Keep Us Together As The Pandemic Pulls Us Apart?


Nate Bennett

Reposted with permission from the author. Originally Published
Reposted with permission from the author. Originally Published on

A large chunk of the workforce has had a few months to settle into the experience of working from home. A few short years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine so many could make that transition so smoothly. Of course, rapidly evolving technology is what has protected employee productivity.

Working at home creates a risk of anomie: It can feel as if our tether is severed, and we are floating and disoriented.

Productivity, however, is not all that is at stake. That’s because productivity isn’t the only thing that takes place at work. Starbucks wants to assert itself as our third place – but in doing so, Starbucks realizes the office is our second place. Sure, it’s where we forge and nurture trusting relationships that allow organizations to accomplish their goals. But just as important are the roles relationships have in protecting our emotional well-being. That raises the question: As social distancing creates and fortifies the partitions between us, does technology offer ways to protect, restore, and build well-being among now virtual employees?  

As the pandemic rages, what we’ve necessarily missed is togetherness. As the pandemic continues to drive us physically apart, we experience this lack of togetherness on two dimensions. First of all, people need to be together in ways that allow work to be coordinated and executed. Organizational design is all about bringing people together to take on tasks too big for any one person. Since the industrial revolution, employers have relied on our being together to get work done.

By the time the virus arrived, innovators had filled the cloud with software solutions for coordinating and completing work. This has allowed many of us to maintain passable levels of productivity. Slack is a great example – intuitive to use, an attractive interface, and as a result, a handy tool to protect productivity as you work remotely. The cloud is full of similarly beneficial solutions like Konstru and Tuple that employers have adopted quickly. – For the employer, it’s essential for business. For employees, mastery of the tools allows them to avoid falling out of their leader’s mind as a critical contributor, even as working from home has caused them to be out of sight.

The second dimension of togetherness reflects our nature as social beings. For many, working from home means working alone. Physically present at work, we can feel close to one another – and we benefit through relationships characterized by personal ties. When we lose that connection, we experience what sociologist Emile Durkheim labeled anomie: a lack of belonging and a disconnect from society. Working at home creates a risk of anomie: It can feel as if our tether is severed, and we are floating and disoriented. These feelings are not pleasant – and they don’t bode well for long-term health, job satisfaction, or productivity.

It isn’t clear the cloud is as bountiful when offering a suite of tools to overcome anomie the same way we could for productivity. Of course, there are plenty of social media apps – reports are the average smartphone user has accounts on eight. The interactions that take place on apps such as Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram are by design very superficial. Though they claim to be “social,” these apps were built to encourage you to scroll through a feed to serve a larger number of advertisements. Though some may feel better from likes and retweets that remind them of their status as a social media maven or an influencer, such interactions are as satisfying a remedy to anomie as cotton candy is to real hunger.

Other apps try to build a community around a common goal – like those coworkers together pursue. Duolingo, the foreign language training app, has doubled its users since March. The app uses leaderboards to gamify the language learning experience to engage users. It isn’t clear the built-in efforts to provide communication with other learners are as effective. The diet and lifestyle app, Noom, is designed around the concept of offering a coach and a community of like-minded users to support your efforts to make the life changes you want. They are so committed to having you as a part of these communities that it’s hard to leave – the Better Business Bureau gives them a D. These apps are successful at aggregating demand, but not much more. They aren’t doing anything real to create community.

Until developers unlock the secret to creating purposeful online communities for employees, leaders will need to find ways to keep their employees tethered. This challenge is even more significant for onboarding new employees who have never had a chance to spend time with their new colleagues face-to-face. Leaders who fail at this task will eventually see team members adrift, and then they will experience evidence of lost productivity. The leader’s central challenge over the next six months is to find ways to deploy the technology you can access in a manner that brings people together when being together is not an option.

As we have all experienced, the first Zoom TGIF was passable and a novelty; the second probably served no higher purpose than to create a hard stop on the workday. But has anyone eagerly anticipated a third TGIF via Zoom? Zoom wasn’t built to prevent anomie, so it isn’t to blame for that shortcoming. But nothing else has, either, and that’s the challenge for leaders.

Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website.