The Third Space: Championing Relationships by Integrating Technology


When I began researching the impact of technology on relationships I focused on what I thought was the answer: Finding the discipline, time and place to turn the technology off. Shut it down. Disconnect.

And for good reason. Study after study confirm what many of us are feeling (or know intuitively) about the impact of technology on relationships. A recent Pew Study found that 89% of people surveyed had a device out during their most recent social interaction. Yet, 82% of those people said that it took away from the conversation. The iphone effect study showed that the mere presence of a phone on a table (or even in one's peripheral vision) changes the nature of the conversation to transactional and trivial. Companies are responding and beginning to create protocols for "no device" meetings, and they have seen benefits in both productivity and depth of conversation. All good.

These protocols work and build deeper connections. We need them. But controlling technology is only part of the story.

The truth is that the nature of work is changing, and is no longer tied to place. We are often deeply engaged in projects with people in different offices, in different time zones, on different continents. There is no conference room big enough to span the great divide between us and our global teams.

At the New York Times, New Work Conference, Amy Cuddy shared with me her thoughts on the role of technology on "presence." She said, "We need to make sure that we really understand how to use the technology. There may be features that will enable us to work more effectively across time zones and actually build intimacy."

I have been investigating the ways technology can be invited to the table as a way of strengthening and deepening relationships. A work in progress, 100%....but it's happening.

Here are five case studies from leaders who are being proactive about experimenting with technology to build relationships throughout their organizations, instead of just falling back on it when in-person is not possible.


1.) I recently spoke with an executive who talked about developing training for managers on how to use WebEx, a video conferencing tool. It might seem silly, but he emphasized how important it is to start with outlining the basics that really make a difference in our virtual experience: Turn on the camera. Make sure the lighting is optimized. Move closer to the camera. This is particularly tricky for women, who may want to shy away from the camera if they work across time zones and have to take calls late at night or at wee hours in the morning. Getting dressed, putting on some make-up, and looking employees in the eye is a tall order at 4 a.m. Food for thought: gender in the third space!

2.) An executive at a top Silicon Valley technology company who manages a global team recently shared with me how she is trying to use the technology to build intimacy. When her team needs to meet, she uses Google Hangout, a tool used for teams to virtually connect via video conferencing. Usually, people are sitting at their desks, a talking head, hands free to do any manner of multi-tasking during the call. So she asked her team to get out got behind their desks, stand up, adjust the camera, move in closer, and actually bring coffee to the hangout. It made them feel like they were standing around talking to each other, connecting and feeling more like a team. And because they were more occupied, they were less prone to distraction.

3.) Another Silicon Valley executive described how she manages a team in New York and Palo Alto. Skype calls with her team are business as usual. But she too began thinking about ways to create a better connection with her team. She wanted to build trust and help them see her as a human being and not just their boss. On a Friday afternoon, she might decide to have a beer with someone on Skype or even let him or her have a peek into her home life by allowing him or her to see one of her children. She believes this brings down some walls, helping her team feel closer to her, and to each other when they all get together face to face a few times a year, which she knows is also invaluable.

4.) The Head of Human Resources of a major technology company described how she uses technology to create a more human culture. She is the mother of two young children and knows that she often is looked to as a role mother for other women in the organization. She works extremely hard, travels globally, but does her best to be present for her kids' big moments. At her kids' school, the first grade apple picking field trip is always a highlight and she was not about to miss it. And she wanted everyone to know. So the night before the class trip, she changed her outgoing email reply message to say: "Thank you for your email. I am out of the office today apple picking with my son's class." This was, according to her, the email heard throughout the world. She could not believe the positive response from both women and men.

5) The CEO of a marketing company lives far from most of his employees. In scaling his company, he relied on Google Hangout and Slack to set up communication protocols. He says, "We got our systems in place immediately so we didn't have to retroactively put them in place and fight the culture." One such key system was the "digital daily huddle," and the monthly "all-hands-on-deck meeting" where the employees in Omaha and San Diego gather around a TV and "meet" face to face. Such meetings save hours in email tangles.

I am all for putting technology in its place. If that means phones in a basket in the middle of the conference table, great. But if it's not exactly possible, or productive, or desirable, that's fine, too. The quest for great hardware and software to help us connect is important, for sure. But what's even more exciting to me is the way we humans can't help but innovate-- improving upon, tweaking, understanding the subtleties of something before it's barely out of the box.

So when you think about how you can use technology to strengthen relationships across your organization, here are some things to consider:

1. Be sure the basic technology is understood by all members of the virtual connection
2. Though it may feel contrived (at first), try injecting authenticity into staged connections
3. Keep an open mind; the third space is new territory and ripe for innovation

Between tech takeover and tech denial--the third space is the the place where relationships are front and center, and everything else serves our vital connections. After all, that's what this human business is all about.

Please email with your thoughts and stories about how you have used technology to strengthen your own relationships at work. I would love to hear from you.