Digital tools have led to fewer meaningful interpersonal interactions, less free time, and increasing loneliness despite the developers’ best intentions—not least, at the management and C-suite level.

Do social networks and tech communication tools make us more connected as human beings and more efficient as thinkers and workers? Or are they actually making us more isolated and lonely? Have they succeeded in bringing us closer?

LinkedIn says its mission is simple, “Connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” Facebook’s stated objective is “to give people the power to share, and make the world a more open and connected place.”

Steve Jobs said Apple’s raison d’etre was “to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” Slack is a ‘collaboration hub’ that promises to “make work-life simpler, more pleasant and more productive, helping organisations connect their teams, unify their systems, and drive their business forward.” In spite of their developers’ best intentions, digital tools such as these may be having the opposite effect, leading to fewer meaningful interpersonal interactions, less free time, and increasing loneliness—not least, at the management and C-suite level.

The negative impact of digital transformation

While there has been much written about how the self-esteem and mental well-being of the young is being negatively affected by social media, instant messaging and the smartphone, there are fewer thoughts being devoted to professional and personal lives of more mature users and how digital communication and social media platforms are affecting them.

Those in upper management positions report spiralling pressure to maintain polished online presences, with LinkedIn the pivotal platform. They’re also pressured to post on company intranets detailing their teams’ latest successes, causing anxiety over always having something to boast about—when in fact, sales records, innovations and other newsworthy occurrences take patience and effort to achieve while executives are expected to post news and craft intelligent thought leadership pieces.

A classic Catch 22, these time-consuming tasks eat up a leader’s bandwidth, preventing them from spearheading various initiatives that will lead to newsworthy performance and concentrating on motivating employees to work harder.

Much thanks to technology, work now follows us everywhere—it is impossible to switch off and difficult to achieve work-life balance. The situation is acute for expatriate executives at Singapore’s 37,000 international companies. Some executives are working far from head office, they are already isolated and often deal with time differences that result in double shifts, communicating with colleagues overseas late into the night, further depleting quality time with family and friends.

25% of international hires were planning to leave their overseas postings early, the most common reason cited (14%) being loneliness, according to a 2019 survey by InterNations. In fact, 30% of respondents wished that professional networking services would be provided by their company. While Singapore was rated highly for a sense of ‘Feeling At Home’ (6th globally), expats said building social networks was difficult on ‘Finding Friends’, Singapore ranked 24th internationally.

In the age of technology, issues such as these are generally solved far more quickly and effectively via verbal dialogue. But during the standard working day, telecommunication is being used instead of in-person communication. In other words, we’re messaging more, but communicating less.

In a 1982 memo entitled ‘How to Write’, legendary ad man David Ogilvy dispensed excellent advice such as, “Never use jargon words like reconceptualise, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass,” and “Write the way you talk. Naturally.” He finished the 10-point tutorial with this admonition: “If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.” The advice remains relevant—much can be achieved by working together, whereas time, energy, and little nuances such as body language are lost communicating digitally.

However, we are increasingly discouraged from meeting in person (corporate cost-cutting pressures and the anti-flight environmental movement only exacerbating matters) and instead, to rely on emailing, messaging or video conferencing. There are well-documented links between isolation and loneliness, and it is not good for business, and it is not good for us, which can so easily result from a digitally focused existence and health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression and early death. 50% of chief executive officers feel a sense of loneliness and isolation according to recent Harvard Business Review studies.

One of the key possible causes of increasing loneliness in modern society is “the rise of communications technology, including smartphones, social media and the internet.” This was written last year in The New York Times by Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology, media, culture and communication at New York University.

Klineberg argued that we have used the media system to deepen existing divisions, at both the individual and group levels, despite what tech companies pledged that their products would help create meaningful relationships and communities. He added that while we may have thousands of “friends” and “followers” on Facebook and Instagram, when it comes to human relationships, it is no substitute for building them the old-fashioned way—in person, human-to-human connection.