Ahead of the exclusive "Beyond Retail" gathering in Stuttgart, Tim was interviewed about the romantic future of business.
Tim gave the opening keynote at the Beyond Retail conference hosted by German business daily Handelsblatt and brand retail experience firm Liganova, and ahead of the event in Stuttgart he spoke with Liganova’s Industry Insider magazine.
The Business Romantic Society aims to “make us fall back in love with our work and our life.” Were we ever in love with our work and life, or are we being tricked by nostalgia? What’s causing the breakup?
Nostagia is often misunderstood as a longing for a time gone by when in fact it means “pain from an old wound” (from the Greek nostos algos) and pinpoints an aching for a feeling of belonging, for something deep, profound, and essential that we are craving in our hyper-connected, hyper-optimized digital lives. In that sense, romance can restore the belief that there’s meaning to be found in the seemingly mundane, and that there’s always another world, another truth out there.
It’s a belief that, for the most part, we have engineered out of our secularized modern work lives, which are based on the notion of a data-based objective truth, the (illusion of) rational decision-making, and the relentless logic of the bottom line. We have divorced large parts of our humanity from business and failed to use digital technology for anything but building the iron cage of efficiency, reducing human wellbeing to the principles of constant self- optimization in the process.
The result is a double disenchantment: one the one hand, many, if not most of us, are unhappy and disengaged at work, as Gallup’s and other studies have consistently shown over the past few years. On the other hand, economic principles—the regime of “quantify everything”—have invaded all aspects of our lives and fomented a winner-takes- all-society, with cynicism as the main modus operandi.
In my book, The Business Romantic, and my work with The Business Romantic Society, the firm and creative collective I founded, I am proposing an alternative vision that utilizes technology to create intimacy, beauty, and meaning. I’m working with Fortune 500 companies and SMEs on producing positive, humanist visions for the coming age of AI and automation. I believe that in the future we humans must do our work beautifully, not just efficiently. We’re entering a new romantic era in which feeling, imagination, and the ability to travel between different worlds and handle different identities will become critical qualities. Beancounters will be replaced by beancounting machines. Accountants will suffer, artists will thrive.
Tech in the workplace draws talent, yet it can also make things feel less personal. At the same time, millennials seek meaning and purpose in work – as in life. How can businesses and employers reconcile these trends?
It depends on how you use technology. Take Slack, which has established the conversational interface as an effective format for knowledge sharing and collaboration in the enterprise. The service is not just easy to use, but also fun. It speaks to you with a warm, human voice, rich with wit and personality. It’s perfectly suited to deliver a user experience that feels authentic and in tune with a company’s cultural DNA. Ultimately, for millennials—and even more so for the following Gen Z—what matters is that their company’s
purpose matches their everyday workplace experience. This is why services like Slack can have such an impact.
A lofty mission statement or a bold vision is not enough; it must manifest itself in the company culture, in the behaviors, interactions, and rituals that make the difference between a productive workplace and a beautiful one. As the boundaries between work and life continue to merge, how can technology help us reconnect with our humanity? Or are we looking in all the wrong places by turning to tech? Technology is the problem and the solution. We can’t turn back the clock and live like Luddites. Technology is magical, and if we apply it creatively, it can expand the playing-field rather than narrowing it.
Consider the trend of mindfulness, which originally started with Google’s Search Inside Yourself movement and has brought back meditation and even spirituality to the mainstream workplace at impressive scale. Software company SAP, for example, has created the position of “Head of Mindfulness” and launched a worldwide training program that has become tremendously popular among its employees. In a similar vein, a growing number of enlightened tech professionals have grown more aware of how we allocate our time and attention and are developing tools that help us regain our human agency in the face of digital overload, e.g. apps like Headspace. The key is not altering technology per se but the values and behaviors it promotes.
To balance the disruptive force of exponential technologies, we need a new “exponential humanism”, as my friend Gerd Leonard calls it. We must insist on the permission to make mistakes, to be erratic, inconsistent, and elusive, in other words: we must create and protect spaces in which we can be human. Immersive technologies such as AR and VR might help us with that, as they are by design about discovering and creating alternative worlds and parallel identities. In that sense, they are perhaps the most promising technologies of a new romantic age.
Finally, the rise of AI will force us to examine the very essence of our being human. There is warranted concern that AI might threaten our humanity, but, at the same time, as an optimist I do believe that it will eventually make us make us more human by reminding us to value more strongly what makes us so unpredictable and special.
You have spoken of a “humane economy.” Can you describe what such a scenario might look like? What are the key ingredients – and where does change come from?
A humane economy is a human economy: an economy that puts humans at the center. At the macro- economic, policy level this will in the not too distant future most likely mean some form of universal basic income in an effort to redistribute wealth gains generated through automation and avoid a catastrophic erosion of the social contract. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a new class of “dispensables,” or as Yuval Noah Harari calls it, the “useless class.”
At the organizational level, we will need companies—or networks and pop-up organizations as their eventual successors—that resist the pressures of efficiency and foster emotionally rich, soulful culture which give us humans a home and deep connection to others (humans, but eventually also robots).
And at the personal level, we must find new ways to identify and articulate our purpose at and especially beyond work. We must foster intrinsic motivation and constantly seek new ways to inspire others and ourselves through our very human vulnerability.