During 2019 there was a lot of discussion, both at Snow and more generally, about the need for IT to become more human-centred. This includes the need to focus on the people that the technology supports and enables rather than the technology itself. For example, human-centred IT involves freeing people up from mundane and repetitive tasks as automation becomes more sophisticated, affordable and mainstream, thereby allowing them to focus on more value-based and rewarding activity.
We’ve probably all come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point, although in recent years probably with the meme with ‘WiFi’ added to the bottom. For most of us, this pyramid has been largely irrelevant (and a bit of a joke). But the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it made me realise that it might be time to revisit it, as it can help us understand how we can address the changed world we find ourselves in.
Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, what we were really talking about with ‘human-centred IT’ was the ’self-actualisation’ at the top of the pyramid. For the majority in the tech industry, including the tech teams in the customers we serve, the lower levels of this pyramid are largely taken for granted. We know that we have access to food, water, shelter, warmth, rest, (even leisure time) and that we are essentially safe and secure – all the basic needs of humanity. We have friends and relationships and jobs that give us a sense of accomplishment – and despite the acknowledged mental-health issues in first-world society, in general, our roles (both work and personal) give us a sense of self-esteem, meeting our psychological needs. While some social media may at times make us feel that we’re not measuring up to the perfect home, job, family, handknitted jumper, homemade sourdough loaf, homegrown tomatoes and Instagram-perfect lifestyle, what it does highlight is that our aspirations are focussed around self-actualisation and self-fulfilment. Even now there are posts on social media suggesting that we use the current crisis and lockdown time to lose weight, get fit, learn a new language, read the books we’ve always been meaning to, write that novel, declutter, do DIY, grow food, cook gourmet meals, make that sourdough, take up yoga. Suggesting, apparently, that we all have so much more free time now. However, the reality is often starkly different.
With many businesses forced to close or change the way they operate, many employees have had their hours reduced, been furloughed, or sadly been dismissed. For some, this sudden change in cash flow has impacted their ability to provide even the basic necessities of life – like food and shelter – for their families. With schools closed in many countries, parents are trying to homeschool and entertain their children while simultaneously working from home (or in the case of key workers, going out to work in ever more difficult circumstances). Panic buying was a clear indication of how quickly instincts returned to the bottom of the pyramid and survival. Even now, grocery shopping isn’t straightforward – key workers struggle to get what they need when they come off shift, flour is in short supply (maybe everyone is making sourdough after all?) and people post triumphantly about having tracked down toilet paper or pasta, returning to their hunter-gatherer instincts.
I’ve posted on LinkedIn about some of the challenges that people are facing with working from home, (new tech, sharing space with others, limited connectivity, security concerns), but we also need to remember that many people can’t work from home – those we now think of as key (or essential) workers. Not just doctors, nurses and paramedics, but carers, cleaners, supermarket employees, delivery and truck drivers, bin men, transport workers and those supporting critical infrastructure. All of these are taking risks that those of us who can work from home simply don’t have to consider.
We’re also hearing of people who are struggling with isolation, who thought that they’d be happy not to have to commute, but who are missing the social interaction with colleagues and customers. While these people may be safe, they’re unable to fulfil anything more than these basic needs.
Belongingness, love, relationships
I myself have now been in isolation for 6 weeks as the result of the virus and a secondary infection. As I was travelling before that, it’s been 8 weeks since I’ve seen my family or any local friends. I’m relying on the milkman and a veg box scheme for groceries (thankfully supplemented by family, friends and the local volunteer network picking up prescriptions and dropping off the odd additional groceries at the gate, without any contact), and telephone appointments with my doctor. While I’m still enjoying the novelty of spending so much time at home and not living out of a suitcase, I’m very aware that there are significant mental and emotional impacts of the current situation. As I was waiting outside the GP surgery to be assessed (just over a month ago now), I was scrolling through social media and found that my response to the content was much more emotional than normal. Posts either exploiting the virus to sell or continuing as normal with no acknowledgment of the worrying situation we were all in, really upset me.
Esteem, prestige, accomplishment
We need to remember that right now the people we work with – our colleagues, our customers, our suppliers – are struggling to come to terms with this ‘new normal’. They’re not thinking about fulfilling their potential or being creative any more than we are. They’re wondering whether their business will survive, whether they can manage on their reduced paycheck, whether they will still have a job at the end of their period of shielding or furlough. They’re worrying about the family members they can’t see, how they’re coping with isolation, whether they will ever see them again. They may have family or friends who are sick or who have died in the last few weeks. They may be in isolation and wondering whether they’ll be able to get a grocery delivery or concerned about how their children are coping with cancelled exams, lack of socialisation and more screentime than would normally be considered OK.
While self-actualisation may seem irrelevant in many ways now that there is so much uncertainty lower down the pyramid, we still see that it matters – but it has changed. Rather than worrying about whether our food is photogenic enough to post online, people are wondering how they can make a difference. They want to contribute towards making the current situation better – whether through their day-to-day work or through volunteering.
So what does the future of IT look like now?
We’re going to keep looking at this – there are some inspirational examples out there of how businesses have pivoted to fulfil the needs that this crisis has brought about. The humans at the heart of our organisations have never been more important, but right now, they may struggle to envisage the future. Right now, it’s not about a 10-year vision, a 5-year or even a 3-year plan. It’s whether I’ll have a business or a job or a home in the next 3 months, 6 weeks or even 3 weeks. So what does this mean for Technology Guardians?
Get back to basics
Firstly, cut yourselves some slack and remember that your mental and emotional reactions are a normal response to the situation we see around us. Secondly, do the same for your colleagues. But more than that, remember that your organisation has changed, and the market that it is in has changed. Don’t assume that you know what your stakeholders want and need – ask them. Help them work it out as your organisation changes. Your data has value beyond what you have traditionally used it for, so stretch yourselves, maximise the value of what you do, respond to the change and help your organisation navigate and survive the uncertainty and disruption.
The world that emerges as we reacquaint ourselves with the importance of those basic needs may not be the same as the one that we are familiar with. We need to be prepared for this, and be flexible. We all need to change our focus, and ask what we can do to help.