Human-centred thinking in a time of crisis

30 Mar 2020646 Views

Image: © 9dreamstudio/Stock.adobe.com

The importance of human workers to keep the world turning in a crisis has been shot into the spotlight. Remembering our humanity will get us through these challenges, writes Elaine Burke.

We at Silicon Republic are so keen on the concept of putting humans at the centre of everything that we even named our revamped flagship event after it. This isn’t a radical idea and has been adopted in many forms, from human-centred design frameworks to human factors research. The gist of it all is that focusing on people makes for better products and services – and, generally, a better society for all.

Economics tends to be more dispassionate. It’s aware of humans, but more as a labour input and a cost. What’s good for the economy is not always what’s good for humans overall, as can be seen in political arguments against decisions that lean heavy on economy-first principles. When economic needs lead policy, it is typically those who benefit the least from its progress who suffer.

Thankfully, economy-first hasn’t been the standard approach to Covid-19. Public health –  or human health – is at the forefront of decision-making for the most part. Yes, this too has its economic argument, but one need only look to the leader across the Atlantic for an example of extremely human-agnostic decision-making. The callousness with which 100,000 lives (minimum) were written off by US president Donald Trump bears no resemblance to human-centred thinking.

That’s not to say there aren’t humans being forgotten about on this side of the ocean. There has been a worrying lack of attention paid to the risks facing those dependent on homeless services (or, indeed, living on the streets without them), as well as those tightly contained in direct provision centres. Let’s just hope this powder keg doesn’t set off.

But, in this new normal, we are increasingly aware of the necessity of human service. Those in the employ of the long list of essential services will continue to go out and work amid the pandemic so that life can go on in its adjusted form. This is no small ask from those enabled to work at home. We have always been supported by these people, only now this support is at its most visible and our gratitude should be just as prominent.

‘One need only look to the challenges facing content moderation in the time of physical distancing to see how essential humans are to our technological services’

At Silicon Republic, we have long advocated for putting humans at the centre of science and technology. They need not be dispassionate projects operating at a distant remove from the people they serve. Progress for progress’ sake, benefitting only the few, is nothing much to boast about.

Stories of how work can be transformed by science and technology often centres on how humans might be dispensed with. From automation and algorithms to hardware and robotics, we puny humans simply can’t compete with the machines – or so some headlines would have you believe.

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But, for our part, we’ve long heralded the augmenting, not the erasure, of the human workforce with science and technology, because the human touch will always be necessary. Indeed, the skills we require that machines can’t muster test our empathy over our methodologies. These are soft skills indeed and this present crisis is honing them just as much as our pragmatic ability to work remotely.

One need only look to the challenges facing content moderation in the time of physical distancing to see how essential humans are to our technological services. Since the mass movement to work from home took place around the world, the way social media is moderated has taken a huge hit.

As much as these platforms populated with user-generated content tout their algorithms’ abilities to moderate, it is human decision-making that keeps these efforts in check. These are services that have proved difficult – for many practical reasons – to shift to remote workers. And so, social media may be at the whim of automated moderators, much to the frustration of many users.

‘Team leaders must remember, during this reluctant remote working revolution, that humans are not machines and can’t be programmed to operate at their full best during a time of crisis’

Just as Big Tech is being forced to acknowledge the importance of the humans at the front lines of moderation, supply and other work that sustains their billions in profit, employers around the world are going to have to learn the importance of human-centred thinking to manage their remote teams.

Team leaders must remember, during this reluctant remote working revolution, that humans are not machines and can’t be programmed to operate at their full best during a time of crisis. Between wavering mental health, the sickness caused by the coronavirus, and the challenge of balancing work and home life when all are now trapped in the same four-walled box, the fact that we are even managing to keep the lights on is a small miracle.

The most effective public health messaging on Covid-19 reminds us that we need to look after one another. Stay at home so others can safely go to work. Wash your hands so you don’t transmit infection to others. Keep your distance so you can protect yourself and others.

The most human thing we can do in these circumstances is show empathy, do our best and remember that we are not machines.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com