The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 124

Dan Schawbel

Back to Human

How do you create a more socialized workplace – one that doesn’t rely on technology? According to Dan Schawbel, researcher and author of Back to Human, technology can create barriers instead of bridges. Discover why email is ineffective at conflict resolution, which workplaces are the best, and the benefits of staff birthday parties.


What makes for the best workplaces? The ones that make you feel like you’re part of the family @DanSchawbel



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

Peter: Joining us on the podcast today is Dan Schawbel. He wrote the book Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation. Dan is a New York Times bestselling author, he’s a partner and research director of Future Workplace, and he’s a millennial. This is not his first book, and he has been sort of a voice of the generation, to some degree, or at least looking at the generation and kind of understanding its impact on our lives in the current workplace in the world today, so it’s a real pleasure to have Dan on the podcast.

Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast, Dan.

Dan: Happy to be here, Peter. Always good catching up.

Peter: Give us the big picture overview of Back to Human. What’s the main idea behind the book?

Dan: Technology has created the illusion that we’re all connected, when in reality our overuse and misuse of that technology has made us more isolated, lonely, disconnected from our teams and less committed to our organizations.

Peter: Great, and I think that everybody listening could probably see ways in which technology has been helpful and ways in which technology has disconnected them, so the idea is important and I’m sure resonates.

Peter: I’m curious, like, you’re a young guy. I can say that now that I think I’m a young guy, but I’ve got a little older. You’re more facile with these technologies than someone 20 or 30 years older than you, and I’m curious what you’ve seen happen in your life that have led you to say, “I want to write this book,” and what experiences have drawn you to the subject.

Dan: Multiple experiences. The first thing is we both live in Manhattan, and when you’re in the subways, when you’re walking around the street, when you’re in a co-working space, wherever you are in this city there’s so many people, yet at some level you can feel very isolated and alone. It’s because wherever you are, people are focused more on the technology devices that they’re using instead of the people around them, so we feel like we’re around so many people but no one at the same time. People are physically near us but not emotionally, spiritually or mentally, and while devices can be a good distraction at points, or buy us time, or allow us to connect with other people, at the end of the day the most important thing is relationships.

Dan: I knew this when I was just out of college. Like, I would use technology, I was very early into blogging in 2006 to connect with all sorts of people who were my age looking to build careers online, and while it was great to connect with them, my network and my relationships only grew in person, and over the past decade I’ve met most of them in person and I’ve expanded my network using technology as a bridge to human relationships, not as a barrier.

Dan: That’s the main message that I’m trying to get across is when I interviewed 100 young leaders from [inaudible 00:03:39] the biggest companies in the world: Johnson & Johnson, Ernst & Young, GE, Uber, Facebook, you name it, they all said technology is a double-edged sword. Whether it’s good or bad, the most important thing is how you’re using it and not to misuse it.

Dan: The other inspiration is every book I’ve written, my first book, Me 2.0, helped people get from college to their first job, promote yourself as first job to management, and then this one’s a leadership book in Back to Human. The first book was heavily focused on technology, calling it Me 2.0, was at the height of the Web 2.0 movement before we went from Web 2.0 to social media, which is the same thing, different term, and now the pendulum has swung the other way.

Dan: I think that regardless of who you are, how old you are, if you’re a man or a woman, we have the inherent inborn need to connect and build relationships. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs after safety and security, and food and shelter, it’s about love and friendships, otherwise we’ll never be self-actualized. And just like there’s only 24 hours in a day, no matter how much technology we have and how many robots we work alongside, we’re still going to need to connect to people on a human basis, and that’s a core focus of why I wrote this book.

Peter: Now, you grew up without not knowing technology, right? Like, it’s a double-negative. But you grew up with technology. You breathed it along with air. I’m curious about what led to your discovery, your personal discovery that this wasn’t working for you? Because you’re skilled at it, you’ve written books about it, and we all know plenty of people who live and die by it and actually do find social connection in it in certain ways, so I’m curious. What happened for you that you came to the realization that this wasn’t working?

Dan: First I want to say that when I grew up with technology, it’s not even remotely close to what we have today. I feel old talking about the technology I used growing up, like the first Mac I had where it had this massive floppy disk that you would insert into it. I don’t even remember what it was called it was so long ago.

Peter: So it’s definitely not the same way my kids are growing up with technology, which is-

Dan: No.

Peter: … they don’t know a time without cell phones and Instagram.

Dan: Correct. If you’re born today, you don’t know what Blockbuster Video is or Toys R Us is, you probably already have a Netflix account, your parents might have bought your domain name, you will never own a phone that can’t take a picture, so it’s completely different and that’s how your view of the world is different based on when you grew up and what technology you have access to.

Dan: Because technology gives you access to more information, people and resources earlier in life. That’s why half of high school students have an internship now, that’s why companies are trying to get into middle schools, because they want to influence people’s career decisions earlier, because people have access to more information so they’re starting to make those decisions earlier. So completely transformational.

Dan: When I was trying to stand out on mine in interviews in college, I had a CD portfolio of work. If you’re born now, you probably don’t even know what a CD is.

Peter: Right, so I’m-

Dan: I think it hit me hard. I was going-

Peter: … making you out to be a little younger than you actually are.

Dan: Yeah, and I was going to a Mets game once and I saw two people on the subway, one had a Sony Walkman, one had a cassette recorder, and then the other person was, I think, 12 years old looking at both of them like they were aliens, and that kind of showed me that things have really changed.

Dan: And for me, when did I realize this? I myself was very isolated and lonely. Being an introvert, working from home for eight years I recognized that I wasn’t getting enough human connection and it was making me depressed, and then even when I was going out, like let’s say you don’t talk to someone and have no human interaction for three, four, five days, and then you go to an event, you feel socially awkward, or at least I do, and so I’m like, how do I prevent this from happening? How do I get more connection with my business partners, with my teammates?

Dan: Because I was a solopreneur and now I have two business partners, I have a team, and I’ve just made a lot more friends and connections in the city, so I’m trying to structure my day so I have time to be focused. Because in order for me to write and hone my craft, I have to work just by myself remotely, but at the same time I also need the human connection, so I need to structure my day so I’m meeting people in person for coffee, for lunch and going to events. So I integrate personal with professional with work life integration so that I’m able maximize each day so I’m getting the best of both.

Peter: So, let’s look at … because I can almost ask you the opposite question now that I know that you’re a little older than I was placing you out to be which is, maybe you and I don’t fully appreciate the social connections that exist through technology, that when my kids are on Instagram, a lot, that they are actually feeling the social connection with their friends who are also posting on Instagram and then they might text each other about it or they might chat about it.

Peter: And let’s stretch this over to the workplace which is, that’s the reality of our workplaces, too, which is that there’s more and more companies that are virtual where people are working from all over the place, there’s more and more situations where we’re working globally and we have to connect with people using these technologies. The inefficiency of face-to-face, if you’ve got eight team members and they’re all in different countries, becomes untenable to bring them together too often.

Peter: So I’m curious about whether we have to just learn ways of leveraging these technologies to understand it the way a 15-year-old mind understands it, or whether there’s something inherently antisocial and sort of depressing about living our lives through technology.

Dan: So it’s a double-edged sword, like I was saying before.

Dan: One of the most interesting research studies came out a few weeks ago and it found that teenagers for the first time ever would rather text than have an in-person conversation. Millennials and gen X, and baby boomers, and the silent generation would far prefer in-person communication, but teenagers now, the people who you’re talking about, would much rather text, and it’s the first time that’s ever happened. To me, once they head into the workplace, that’s going to be game changing, that’s going to change everything. It’s going to create a lot of misunderstanding, maybe weaker relationships.

Dan: So I think technology is good as a bridge, I think that tech can remove the work you don’t want to do through artificial intelligence, and technology can get everyone into the same conference room or social event or meeting, and then once you’re there, if you’re still using that technology, if you’re looking down instead of at other people, it’s disrespectful and you’re not really there. Like, what’s the point of you even being in that room? So I think that-

Peter: But I can imagine a 15-year-old saying, “I don’t want to be in that room.” Like, maybe I’m not an extrovert, I don’t like being in that room, it’s totally inefficient to be in that room. I’d rather, actually, text. And what you guys get done in an hour in a meeting, I could get done in 10 minutes by texting more transactionally and getting stuff done.

Dan: Yeah, I’ll give you one study. If someone has an average of 150 Facebook friends, they can only rely on three at a time of an emotional crisis. Meaning that all these teenagers who will eventually be workers, they think that they have good relationships with their co-workers, but in reality they’re weaker relationships that are being developed through texting and email and there’s more understanding.

Dan: I’ll give you an example. I work with Virgin Pulse. We surveyed over 2,000 managers and employers in 10 countries and we found that the biggest thing that gets in the way of human connection in the workplace right now is email. Yet it was a study in the Harvard Business Review, you could be familiar with, that says one face-to-face conversation is more successful than 34 emails back and forth, because instead of going back and forth, like texting back and forth, all you have to do is walk a foot and tell people what you actually mean.

Dan: Now, I’m not saying technology isn’t useful. I think it’s extremely useful. Of course, I built a lot of my career on it. In the workplace, if you want to remind somebody to go to a meeting, a text message makes complete sense. But, if you get into a work conflict … And the biggest soft skill that people graduating from school don’t have is conflict resolution, because they’re so busy using the technology they think the technology’s going to solve their problem and resolve conflicts for them. But it’s not. And that’s why, as a leader, it’s really important to have these face-to-face, meaningful, deep conversations.

Dan: One of the biggest things I talked about in the book was about work friendships, and the reason why these friendships are so important is because there is no nine to five workday in America, especially. It’s a 47-hour work week. And then not having your phone is the new vacation where managers expect employees to respond to emails, phone calls and text messages outside of office hours, and even on weekends and on vacations. Because of that, the work you’re doing is very important, right?

Dan: If you don’t have meaningful work that you’re excited about and that plays to your strengths, you’re probably not going to stay at that job very long. And if you’re not doing work with people that you can learn from, that are challenging intellectually, and that you get along with, you’re probably going to leave, too. So the work you do and the people who you do it with are the most important. By far. It’s not the brand you work for, it’s not where it’s located, that is work.

Dan: What we found in the book through the Virgin Pulse study is that 7% of the global workforce has zero friends at work, and half of the global workforce has five or fewer. This is important because people my age see their boos as their work parent and their co-workers as their family, and after studying workplace cultures for over a decade, I’ve discovered that the best work culture is the ones that are on the best place to work list, are the ones that feel like a family, feel like you’re part of something bigger than you, where you have real purpose, where you feel like you belong. You’re happy and you’re part of something where you’re going in the right direction and there’s some sort of innovation.

Dan: And so, to me, I think friendships are really important because we’re spending so much time at work. If we lack it, it doesn’t fulfill our needs, and if we have a horrible day at work because our leader made fun of us or our co-worker took credit for our work, that’s going to affect our home life. And in our home if we get into an argument with our partner or our child or our friend-

Peter: It affects our work life.

Dan: … that’s going to affect our work life.

Peter: Right.

Dan: So everything’s very well connected at this point. That means a few things. It means we should have more flexibility at work or in the office to do personal things, because outside of work we’re expected to do work things, so work is kind of everywhere at every time, and new boundaries have to be created, of course, and we have to be able to personally integrate work with life, and we have to get both right. That’s why you and I focus a lot on work is because if we can make work a better experience, it’s going to help someone’s entire life.

Peter: So let’s get concrete about what you learnt both in the research and also in your own life around what solves this. How do you go from that feeling of disconnection to a feeling of connection, especially when you’re in an environment in which other people are still using that technology?

Peter: I could be at dinner with someone and not bring my phone, but if they brought their phone, I’m going to get frustrated when they go on their phone, especially if I’m not on my phone. So, what advice can you give us, or what specific tips or techniques can help us leverage the good of technology and avoid its destructiveness?

Dan: The biggest thing that came out of the research in terms of how to solve it and create a more socialized workforce is to have social events. That’s how you create more engagement and fulfill people’s personal needs, yet 20% of organizations globally have zero company outings, workasions, they don’t celebrate office birthday parties, they don’t do anything. And yet these things don’t really cost that much money, even having one offsite per year and to create more team building activities-

Peter: So let’s talk about those two things-

Dan: … very important.

Peter: … because a social event versus an offsite feel very different to me. An offsite feels really important and useful and get everyone who’s critical to getting something done in a room and create alignment and collaboration and move forward.

Peter: When I think about birthday parties and social events like that, it’s the kind of thing that people sort of roll their eyes at a little bit and kind of go to because they have to go to, or a company dinner they kind of go to because they have to go to. But it’s almost like the friendship has to precede the event. The event itself doesn’t create the friendship, has been my experience. I’m curious what you’ve seen around that.

Dan: The only way to create a real friendship is to talk about things that don’t have to do with work. Think about all the people you’re friends with. If all you do is talk about work with them, there’s no deeper connection that leads to a true friendship. So I think that, as a leader, opening up, being honest, talking about things that normally you might not talk about, within HR limits of course, and I think that is a great way of opening up and creating a good culture where people can open up as well.

Dan: As a leader, being empathetic and vulnerable and talking about what’s actually happening in the organization, what you’re going through, challenges, is a good way to connect with people, because people desire reality, they desire human connection, they desire a level of authenticity and transparency in the people they work with and those who lead them. I think by doing that and then having an office birthday party, people are more inclined to attend because they already feel like they belong, they already feel like they have people they can count on, they already feel that they already know everyone on a personal level, so they want to go and they’re encouraged to go, and actually they’re all chip in and say, “Hey, what can be bring to the party? And who’s buying what gift? Let’s contribute each $10 to a $100 gift for the individual.” I see this happening all the time.

Dan: I interviewed a ton of people for the book. Like a VP at GE, Jennifer Schopfer, that I interviewed, she said that her co-workers are some of her closest friends. They came to her wedding, she goes to their wedding … That’s what we’re trying to go for here is there’s a reason why you have so many people who date co-workers, it’s because it’s such a big pool and we spend a third of our lives working. So it’s really about creating the environment.

Dan: I mean, if you think about even for a small team to a large company, you can do it with whoever. Like for us, at future Workplace, we are going to a Broadway show at the end of the year to celebrate. We have dinners, every Monday we have a call to get everyone on the same page so everyone knows what everyone’s doing. Even though some of us, like me, work remote, we’re always in touch. We text sometimes, too, but we need more than texting. It’s just not enough to maintain the relationship.

Dan: I always tells people, if I didn’t see my teammates or my business partners for a whole year, I’d be checked out. I’d be onto starting another company.

Peter: What do you say to someone who says, “Look, I go to work in order to get work done, and I’m working enough already, so if I’m already working 10-hour days, I don’t really want to work a 12-hour day ’cause I’m talking to people about personal stuff. I want to really get our work done and get out and get to my family, which is what I want to do.” How do you respond to that?

Dan: My goal is to encourage more human relationships, but if they want to set those boundaries, that’s their life. But I will say, if they were working in an environment where the leader is supportive and empathetic and they got along with everyone because when they were interviewing and being onboarded into the company that they created some great relationships, just like going to school. The first few weeks you get oriented, and if you meet some great people maybe you room with them, so it’s the same with companies, too. If you get along with them you’re more likely to want to stay, you’re more likely to say, “Hey, Jed or Mike, do you want to get lunch today?”

Dan: What’s happening in the workplace, even if you go to a physical office, people lack the human connection. So many people will take lunch at their cubicle instead of actually asking a co-worker to lunch. You saw the recent research. Up until recently, 70% of global office spaces had no partitions or low partitions. The reason is because research came out many years ago that if you have an open office space, people are connecting more and collaborating better, but new research shows that is not true.

Dan: And then further research shows that, like I was saying before and I think you’d agree, is I think you need alone time. But then I think you need to have collaborative team meetings. I don’t think you can just do one or the other, I think integrating and doing both is extremely helpful.

Dan: I need time, especially as an introvert and a writer, and we can relate to this, to just be focused, get this work done, write this book, do this webinar or whatever I need to do, and then I need time to collaborate. Because if I’m not meeting people, if I’m not talking with the team, I feel like there’s a lot of lost ideas, and when I’m meeting people, I come up with even better ideas because I like to work with people who have the same values but a different background and different way of thinking than me, because that’s how I learn and better ideas are formed that make us more innovative and effective.

Peter: Okay, we’re out of time, but just to finish off, one quick suggestion. Highest leverage thing that you can come up with to help someone make strong headway. An individual, not necessarily a leader in an organization, but a strong way and a headway to break the addiction to the technology and to create real relationship.

Dan: Smartest thing you can do is use the technology like a Google calendar, Outlook calendar, to set time aside every Monday and Tuesday, twice a week, to organize lunch with your team or just to do a check-in. Simple, effective, works, because I’ve lived it. Sometimes the small things using technology can actually have a huge impact, you just don’t realize it till down the road.

Peter: That’s great. Dan Schawbel, the book is Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation. Look up from your four-inch screen, smile at someone and have a conversation.

Peter: Thanks, Dan, so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dan: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.

Peter: A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit

Peter: Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.


  1. javaid says:

    Excellent work done thanks Peter and Dan. Well deserving topic, we need lot of focus on this topic, lack of relationships will change everything, everything, its the road to dead world, the end of world, it will unfold slowly, people would rather stay in comfort zones, out of habits built early in life, how to change it later in life. Thanks for the effort.

  2. samuel ezema says:

    I like to be receiving your mails

  3. Peter & Dan – Great discussion. Totally agree. This is the #1 issues facing companies today. If not addressed it has the potential to dramatically erode company culture, productivity.

    Relationships matter, take time, and require vulnerability

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