Dan Schawbel: Technology Is Isolating Your Employees

Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel loves technology, but he also calls it a “double-edged sword.”

Schawbel, New York Times bestselling author, workplace consultant and author of “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation,” says technology can be a powerful tool for change, but increasingly, it can lead to an isolated workforce. Schawbel says that one face- to-face meeting is more valuable than 34 emails exchanged back and forth in terms of getting the message across.

In the book, he shares a story about this dynamic from a former speechwriter under President Obama, who was tasked to create a speech around the Ebola epidemic a few years ago.

“He was working with his manager, they were going back and forth through email. And then, at the end, right before they had to deliver the speech, they discovered [numerous] errors because [they were sending] emails back and forth. Had they had one face to face meeting or phone call, maybe they wouldn’t have run into that last minute issue.”

Schawbel shared his thoughts with Chief Executive on the dangers of technology, how a CEO can overcome the stigma of isolation and more. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Tell me about your new book, “Back to Human”?

“Back to Human” is a leadership book for the next generation that helps leaders foster strong human connection, despite all the technology that currently exists in and outside the workplace.

One face- to-face meeting is more successful and powerful than 34 emails exchanged back and forth. Yet, it’s very often that we rely so much on email for communication, and sometimes people feel misunderstood when emails occur, and waste too much time going back and forth through email. And so, a lot of the more important conversations, you know, such as conflicts at work, should happen in person instead of through text, or social networking, or email. The goal with the book is to help leaders and their teams to use technology properly and not misuse it, because the thesis behind the book is that technology has created the illusion of connection.

The reality is that people who overuse or misuse it feel lonely, isolated, less connected and less committed to their teams and organizations because of it. The book breaks down different aspects of work where leaders can foster a stronger team relationship.

What is the “Work Connectivity Index”?

It’s an academic assessment that measures the strength of the relationships you have among your teammates. And it gives you a good sense of the relationship you have, how connected you are.  And if you have weak connections with someone on your team, they’re more likely to leave your company.

Part of the idea behind the book is that people should bring their whole self to work, not just their business self. The average work week is 47 hours a week for a full-time salaried employee, it is no longer a 40-hour work week. There is no work-life balance because almost everyone I talk to responds to business email on vacation.  So the new vacation in today’s society is not having your phone. It’s not being tied down by messages and alerts that are coming for you regularly.


In October, Schawbel and former Google Talent Chief Laszlo Bock will keynote Chief Executive’s CEO Talent Summit at West Point, sharing exclusive insights into what makes great teams, and great leaders. 

Click Here for event information.


There’s also a chapter on recognition. People don’t want to wait a year anymore for an annual performance review. And young people especially can’t stand the bell curve. The bell curve is a rating from one to five. And for the most part, only one person gets a five, even though that some of the fours should be a five. So those individuals end up leaving.

What I pushed forward in the book is to recognize people publicly, which is what people want, especially young people, on a more consistent basis. Offering this feedback so people can learn, and grow, and see what they’re doing right and wrong, so that they can correct that or do more of the good stuff, the things that are actually going to be beneficial to the workplace.

I have a chapter on empathy. It seems that one of the things that is lacking in society and in the workplace is to really understand where people are coming from and not just sympathize but just have a deeper understanding of what people are going through in their personal life and in the work life. And try and sit with them and have these top conversations, these critical and difficult conversations with them because it’s usually in crisis where the stronger bonds are formed.

You talk a lot about isolation, which can be a tough stigma to overcome for a company. What are some of the ways that CEOs can create a culture where people feel like they can collaborate more freely?

I think it’s about creating a culture where people feel comfortable sharing ideas. You know, it’s like Google’s Project Aristotle. They were trying to figure out what made the highest performing teams. And what they found is the most effective thing a leader can do is create a safe space so people freely share their ideas without repercussions.

I think that’s part of it. I think the other part is not being afraid to share more of who you are at work because then you can establish more human connections. And then, doing small things like using technology…like Outlook or Gmail… to get everyone to the same place at the same time, with the right agenda. But then when you are in that meeting to put all of your phones in the middle of the table and actually be present instead of using technology during that meeting and not actually being there with others.

I think social gatherings are really big, that seems to be what people want, right? No one just wants to work for a company that’s trying to make a profit anymore. They want to work for a company where there’s meaningful work. The company is having an impact on society, even the local community. And people want to work with their friends now.

The more friends you have at work, the more loyal you’re going to be to the company because it’s easy to leave a company where you don’t have social connections and there’s no meaning, than to leave your family. Because, young people especially look at their coworkers as their work family and their boss as their work parent. There’s an old saying, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.”

CEOs love the idea of metrics, being able to measure something. But obviously, it’s not as easy with something like team collaboration. How can you measure this?

I think the big number is retention. You know, the cost to replace an employee is pretty high, and especially if they’re at a more senior level. And if you have a low engagement and people don’t feel an affinity for a brand, they are more likely to leave, and it takes months to replace an employee. It’s a lot of stress and it’s a lot of money spent on advertising on job boards.

“The reality is that people who overuse or misuse it feel lonely, isolated, less connected and less committed to their teams and organizations because of it.”

So the cost of replacing an employee is a lot, not just from a monetary standpoint, but a time standpoint, right? And so, if you can increase your engagement and foster better team relationships, you will have a lower attrition rate, and that will make you more effective, grow faster, and save a lot of money.

What are the top takeaways you’re hoping CEOs get from reading your book?

That work is no longer work, it’s work and life combined because we’re working so many hours now. And much of our work is built into our identity. And so, if you want to have a healthy and productive workforce going forward, you have to take the whole person into account, and really build real strong relationships with your team because then they’re willing to stay with you longer which saves you more money.

And it’s just a more fun place to work because if you have a bad work experience, you’re going to take that home into your life. Think of the last time you had a bad work day, when you come home to be with friends or family, you’re not going to be very happy and that’s going to affect your other relationships. And so, that’s actually why I focus my whole career on improving the workplace and helping, you know, support people’s careers because if work becomes better, people’s overall life improves.

Read more:  True Collaboration Yields Better Results, But Success Is Not Guaranteed

" Gabriel Perna : Gabriel Perna is the digital editor at Chief Executive Group, overseeing content on chiefexecutive.net and boardmember.com. Previously, he was at Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna."