Last week I was on my way to deliver a 5 Chairs Leadership program to the Ontex Executive team in Russia, but I didn’t make it. On the plane, my stomach started to seriously play up due to a virus I’d picked up somewhere, and I ended up fainting in the aisle. A classic! This triggered priority landing procedures at Zurich airport, a prompt ambulance pickup, and two-days of hospitalization at the Zurich University hospital. The ordeal was managed with exemplary Swiss efficiency and cordiality. I was sorry not to have made it to Moscow but my experience on the wards in the hospital really got me thinking about the human side of the digital age.

I was admitted to the heart-emergency ward, then moved to semi-emergency to be finally de-classified to a normal ward. Over a period of two days, about 20 different members of medical staff crossed my horizon and as each new staff member came into view, I asked the same question, ‘Where are you from?’ The answers were astounding. They ranged from Tibet, Kosovo, Chile, Italy, Germany, Iran, Sri Lanka, and even Switzerland! It felt more like the United Nations than a hospital.

As I moved from one ward to another the handover each time was seamlessly and elegantly managed. The level of collaboration between the wards was outstanding. I felt consistently seen, heard, cared for and valued. I was experiencing ‘tip-top’ (an endearing Swiss expression) cross-functional co-operation which is uncommon in too many of our business organizations, and an issue I’m often called on to resolve as a consultant and coach.

I hadn’t been in hospital as a patient for many years. Things had changed, noticeably. The quantity of technology I came into contact with had quadrupled. Every member of staff was digitally literate, albeit with differing levels of comfort. I received constant surveillance, efficiently measured and diagnosed around the clock.  Despite this potentially overbearing presence of technology, however, at no time did I feel a lack of that one essential human factor of which I had a great need; empathy. After all, a hospital bed was the last destination I had in mind when boarding the plane in Florence.


This whole experience brought to mind the myriad of messages being delivered to us right now by research and consultancy organizations such as McKinsey & Company, Ashoka, and Gallup about how important the ‘human’ touch is for success in an ever more digitalized business world.  I was experiencing it as each new piece of technology reached my bedside. I noticed anxiety building inside me; a fear of being overshadowed, seconded and relegated in relevance to the machines that were deciding my destiny. Ever had that feeling?

How often does it happen that we’re so immersed in one of our digital devices we forget to acknowledge the presence of people around us, or even view them as a potential disturbance to our focused concentration? With each new machine I was attached to, I began to consciously track the time the operator dedicated to the machine screen and me. My feeling of well-being and relevance depended on that percentage. What was more important?

The University Hospital in Zurich came out trumps. Just as I was on the edge of indulging in self-pity ’hedgehog’ thoughts: ‘They don’t care about me.’ ‘All they care about is their machines!’ Then, a comforting word of explanation would arrive; an understanding smile; a gentle question about my level of comfort or a simple human exchange. I was safe again! Still relevant in the digital landscape.

This is one of our greatest fears right now–how to remain ‘humanly relevant’ in a world where machines produce products and where digitization and artificial intelligence (AI) is continuously disrupting the way we work at large. The significant news, which is a wake-up call for us all, is that our fundamental human skills will become more and more important as we digitalize.


A 2018 report titled ‘The Skilling Challenge’ by McKinsey and Ashoka states that the disruptions of digitization will not make all jobs ‘digital.’ On the contrary, those activities that are inherently human and therefore not automatable will gain importance. For example, in customer service and customer care jobs where advising, understanding, offering a set of products tailored to their needs, and assisting them with problems, the ‘human’ touch will become the unique selling point.

And isn’t it also high time that these very skills essential for excellent external client relations go to our internal colleagues without whom no selling proposition could exist? A little empathy goes a long way in a VUCA world!

So as the AI era dawns on us let’s carefully re-evaluate the importance of soft skills, recently renamed as ‘robot-proof’ skills, because the forecast is that everyone in the workplace will need them to be successful in the 21st Century. We at The 5 Chairs are fully on board and our top mission is to help you spread these skills across your organizations.

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