A person, a lighthouse

Digitalization is a word we've all been hearing a lot lately. It's ubiquitous, and used for all kinds of phenomena in the area of mobile gadgets and IT. This intoxication with all the wonderful new things that network our lives and make everything better, and are drowning us in a flood of information in the process, has a downside. But because intoxication is so much fun, we try to ignore the hangover that must inevitably come.

Digitalization won't leave us alone. It sucks away our downtime and lets the stress of work overflow into our personal lives, where it often becomes chronic. We're available 24/7. Laptops are small, light and powerful. We take them everywhere. Because that's what a mobile device is all about - mobility. On vacation we upload our pictures to social media - they're way too special to just stay in the family, right? - and while we're doing that, why not finish that report, send that spreadsheet, or upload that last software patch to the server. That's always-on living.

But people aren't made for that. Always-on and never-off make us sick. We accept it with resignation, hide the exhaustion by calling it a cold, and conceal the burnout behind phrases about "reinventing ourselves." Because just being a person is uncool. Information technology is getting ever more complex. Why shouldn't people be able to keep up? After all, we're the ones who created these systems. But all this has massive effects on health and social life. More and more we see depression, burnout and failed relationships as collateral damage of the digital transformation.

But it doesn't have to be that way!

The benefits for working life are manifold when we put people in the center. It might sound like just another management jargon phrase, but what it really means is understanding that the people who deal with machines and systems are, well, people. And people can't work 24/7. They have to switch off and do other things sometimes.

But this downtime is not plannable like the maintenance interval in a technical system. It can happen that on one day we can work 10 hours straight with no problem, but on another day we're just not up to doing much and really need more recovery time.

If companies manage to accept this and give employees the freedom to take a "human maintenance interval" when they need to, they will stay healthier and perform better over the long run. But this is only possible when everyone trusts each other not to abuse these priviledges. All should be equally responsible and able to make decisions. In this context, leadership must be seen as giving support, not as giving orders to workers who have no say in what they do.

We cannot afford not to develop a healthy attitude towards work. Work doesn't mean spending the minimum effort to make the maximum amount of money that we can then use to pay for leisure time in which we do what we enjoy. Ideally, work should be something that is intrinsically enjoyable and fulfilling, and that also happens to make enough money to finance the rest of life's necessities.

Admittedly, this might sound suspiciously like a fairy tale. But our experience clearly shows that just working towards this goal generates positive effects, even if we're not even remotely there yet. The model is not much more than a hiking map that we're starting to use to find new paths.

We need to get away from the anachronistic management methods of the 19th century. There is less and less assembly-line work where input, output and process parameters are all plannable. We're blazing the trail while we walk it, and that sometimes means backtracking a few steps. We need to learn to cope with ambiguities, and reorient ourselves each day. Faster and faster change requires ever more agile navigation, and the constant readiness to change ourselves as well. The lighthouse in this shifting sea remains - people. We must never lose sight of that.

Eine Welt ohne Grenzen?
Der Leuchtturm "Mensch"

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Friday, 04 December 2020