In the Office and Off-Site…
Many years ago, I read a fascinating article on how the mental state of employees affects the workplace (Harvard Business Review, January-February 1999). It was called, “The Human Moment at Work.” Authored by Edward Hallowell, MD (see Editor’s Note below), Hollowell not only introduced a new term, human moment, into our ever-changing culture but mourned the fact of its slow demise.
How prophetic of him in 1999, the end of the 20th Century, when you think about the sudden onslaught of instantaneous communications at the time, things like cell phones, emails, and the internet, all of which have negatively affected our face-to-face interactions with friends, co-workers, office superiors, and others.
How right on in 2023, the 21st Century with our new safety precautions of social distancing, mask-wearing, and working at home, among other imperative initiatives. Seems like “the lonely planet” is getting lonelier all the time and it affects people, particularly office staff. But, as Hallowell admits, there’s no going back to the low-tech existence of yesteryear and, anyway, there are many good things to be said for technology which he readily endorses on an as-needed basis.
For starters, Hallowell, who is a psychiatrist and a former instructor at Harvard Medical School, first defines the human moment as “an authentic psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space.” Simple enough but then he adds, “I have given the human moment a name because I believe that it has started to disappear from modern life—and I sense that we all may be about to discover the destructive power of its absence.”
Furthermore, he adds: “The absence of the human moment—on an organizational scale—can wreak havoc. Coworkers slowly but surely lose their sense of cohesiveness. It starts with one person, but distrust, disrespect, and dissatisfaction on the job are like contagions. … Eventually, such people make up the majority. An organization’s culture turns unfriendly and unforgiving. Good people leave. Those who remain are unhappy. Mental health concerns aside, such conditions are not good for business. Indeed, they can be downright corrosive.”
So, what to do? How do we maintain quality human relationships at an organizational level in the workplace while we take advantage of the best that technology has to offer? “I am increasingly sought out because people feel lonely, isolated, or confused at work (he’s talking executives here). The treatment I provide invariably involves replenishing the human moments in their lives,” he says.
The course of Action in the Office
- Pay Personal Attention: Disengage from the computer when a colleague walks into your office to discuss next month’s quota; thereby, giving that colleague 10 minutes of quality time with the by-product of brainstorming or working out a problem, and building interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
- Pizza Breaks: Host weekly luncheons in the conference room. Staffers will feel relaxed while tossing around a few ideas, brainstorming together on a problem, and developing an actual office culture.
- All Hands on Deck: Mandate that remote workers report to the office one day a week, or one day a month at the very least, so that everyone feels part of the team.
Well, recently I reread Hallowell’s article from almost 25 years ago and it got me thinking. More times than not, creating these human moments that he speaks of is what any good meeting, conference, or other offsite event hopes to accomplish with its attendees. But how? Break down office barriers, through some ideas around, relate to one another, brainstorm with peers, connect with the organization – become part of the whole, corporate or otherwise.
These days, however, it might seem we’ve lost a lot of control over such matters as safety protocols separate us and limit our activities, from physically reporting to work to traveling to an offsite meeting or event in a city not our own. And, it is obvious to all, this has affected how we conduct ourselves at meetings and other events in the travel and hospital industry.
Take corporate and social responsibility (CSR) activities. Today, many planners think these activities are not what they used to be because they feel limited and must scale down in terms of human contact in this post-covid world. But, don’t cross it off the list. While the tradition once was to roll up one’s sleeves and dig a well or paint the walls of a crumbling orphanage in a distant land before heading back to headquarters, such activities involve high human contact increasing the possibility of “catching something” or even spreading it. But, with a little imagination, there are still a great many helpful projects a travel group of any kind can perform in order to give back to the community in a CSR tradition– all of which are low on the scale of actual human contact.
The course of Action Offsite
- Donate: Silent auctions help raise funds for any number of meaningful causes. For instance, an important piece of equipment for a local hospital or health center; toys for tots at an orphanage; books for a children’s library; or a scholarship for a promising student. High human moment. Low human contact.
- Renovate: Planners might not be able to assign volunteers to an old school for renovations, but they can contract local tradesmen to do the job. This is a double benefit in that it updates an orphanage and provides jobs to people in the area. High human moment. Low human impact.
- Coordinate: Partner with local charities to determine what is truly needed in the community, and they’ll help organize and distribute donated goods as well. High human moment. Low human impact.
Final words from Hallowell: Technology has created a magnificent new world, bursting with opportunity. It has opened up a global, knowledge-based economy and unchained people from their desks. We are all in its debt—and we’re never going back. But we cannot move forward successfully without preserving the human moment. The price we pay for not doing that is too high, for individuals and organizations alike. The human moment provides the zest in our daily lives; it restores us, strengthens us, and makes us whole. Luckily, as long as we arrange our lives properly, the human moment should be easy enough to preserve. All we have to do is take heed—and make it happen.
To read Hallowell’s 1999 article, visit www.hbr.org/1999/01/the-human-moment-at-work.
Editor’s Note: Edward Hallowell, MD, is a psychiatrist. He served as an instructor at Harvard Medical School for 20 years and is the director of the Hallowell Centers in New York City and Sudbury, Massachusetts. He is also the author of several best-selling books, including Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive (HBR Press, 2015), among other accomplishments.