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In a world where generative AI is becoming increasingly omnipresent, many people fear that this technology will replace human jobs and reduce the interactions we have with each other. 

However, for Chris Lochhead, the godfather of category design and co-creator of Category Pirates, he fully embraces AI and its potential role in fostering workplace connection.

Lochhead was chief marketing officer of three publicly-traded Silicon Valley tech companies, most notably Mercury Interactive. After a successful acquisition by Hewlett Packard in 2006, Lochhead went on to write over 30 books – and 13 of them became #1 bestsellers. When he’s not busy writing, he runs 2 podcasts and advises legendary executive startup teams.

In this exclusive interview, Lochhead shares his thoughts on why he believes AI is the future of human and workplace connection. From his unique perspective, he explains how the digital-first world has changed the way we operate, and why AI can enable us to do more meaningful work while developing deeper relationships with our coworkers.

Join us as we dive into the mind of this visionary leader and explore the way the world of work has transformed – including why AI could be a solution to existing workplace challenges.

How to build culture and attract top talent in digital environments

A robot shaking its hands with a human.
Designed by Freepik.

As an experienced marketing executive, Lochhead has had the opportunity to witness many great company cultures. The best culture he’s been directly involved with? None other than Mercury Interactive.

“The thing that was great about Mercury was absolute, maniacal focus on results and customers and their problems,” Lochhead says. “From the very beginning, the company was radically customer-centric.”

“Mercury was a place where if you produce legendary results, you were going to love it. If not, you were not going to like it.”

Lochhead went on to describe a situation that made him realize just how legendary the culture at Mercury Interactive truly was.

Mercury’s European marketing division had an open position for quite some time. Lochhead’s direct report had finally found someone who they felt was a perfect fit. She joined, and by the end of her first week, she had quit. His report had apologized for the setback this would cause, but Lochhead had a different point of view. 

“[My direct report] called to tell me this, apologizing that he had gotten this wrong and how we would have to start all over again,” Lochhead stated. “I told him, ‘No, that’s great!’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’”

“I said, ‘If after a week she was terrified of our culture, then she needed to leave and we needed to hire somebody else. I think legendary cultures attract the kinds of people they are designed to attract and literally repel others.”

Lochhead notes that mission-driven employees are particularly important for startup founders and entrepreneurs. “If the mission excites you, then you want to be there. And if the mission doesn’t excite you, maybe we need to free up your future.”

Attracting top talent with mission-driven mindsets, especially among Gen Z, is no easy feat. But Lochhead says that learning how to prioritize workplace connection in a digital environment is key to acquiring excellent employees. 

“The first thing we have to understand is there has been a radical shift to a native digital world. White-collar knowledge work is going to be digital-first at many companies. It already is, and it’s going to be at virtually every company,” Lochhead says. He explains that there are more native digitals (those who grew up with the virtual world as a primary life experience) than there are native analogs (those who grew up with the virtual world as a secondary life experience) in the workforce. 

“Today, many of us are trying to find this magic line. On one hand we want to be very empathetic, we want to be very welcoming, and we want to focus on connection and collaboration,” Lochhead says. “We want tremendous focus on performance and results, but at the same time we want to be very human with each other. And so I think that’s the place that we’re all trying to get to.”

“To attract native digitals – Millennials, Gen Z – I think we want to create an environment where they feel their digital-first nature is respected. And I think native digitals want some flexibility and agency.”

A young adult working remotely while traveling.
Designed by Freepik.

Small talk, big impact: why virtual watercooler conversations foster authentic workplace connection

Creating a digital-first work environment isn’t just good for your hiring efforts. Acknowledging the shift to a native digital world is also great for your retention rates – and will help you build meaningful workplace connections among employees.

Lochhead acknowledges his ability to build deep and profound relationships online before ever interacting with them in-person.

“I have incredible business and personal relationships with people that I met and collaborated with. I got to know them in the digital world first, long before I met them.”

Lochhead also understands that while collaborating and communicating online is easier than ever, it’s not necessarily the case when it comes to building workplace connections through virtual means.

“In the work world, the digital technologies that have become incredibly powerful and important like Zoom or Slack are for communicating and collaborating, but they’re very rarely, if ever, used for building human connection.

The question at hand for all business leaders, particularly those of us who care deeply about culture, is this: How do we create real, deep, meaningful human connection in addition to communication and collaboration?”

The answer? Small talk. And there’s some science behind it too.

According to a TollFreeForwarding study, analysts found that the positive mental effects of small talk are anything but small.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of workers said that small talk makes the workplace more bearable, and also increased employee motivation and wellbeing. And 77% of those surveyed said that small talk helps them improve and maintain workplace connections with their colleagues. 

“Small talk is the way human beings connect, establish, or re-establish relationships and it allows us to kind of ease in. It gives us an ongoing thing to connect about, and that’s very powerful,” Lochhead states. 

In today’s remote work environment, it can be challenging to foster the kind of casual conversations that happen naturally around the office watercooler. 

However, with the help of tools like Airspeed’s Icebreakers, it’s easier than ever to encourage these types of interactions. By automatically sending out recurring conversation prompts on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, Icebreakers can help you build workplace connections on a more personal level, develop stronger relationships and enhance collaboration. 

A remote employee building workplace connection by video calling with her coworker.
Designed by Freepik.

The Future of Work = the Future of AI

With so many unknowns regarding the future of work, there are a seemingly endless number of questions about how to make the workplace a better world – and no answers in sight.

According to Lochhead, the answer is already here in front of us – it’s called generative AI. However, he doesn’t discount the fears that skeptics may have.

“Is it scary for some? Sure, new things are scary. It’s a little scary for me too. Are there big questions that we have to get answered around privacy and a whole bunch of other things? Absolutely. And do we need to be wise about that? Of course. That said, it’s amazing.”

“Now, in reality, will some people lose their jobs? They will, there will be some displacement,” Lochhead says. “But here’s the flip side. Being legendary at AI prompts is now going to be a radical career differentiator.”

Lochhead shares that this revolutionary technology will not only encourage innovation, but also help level the playing field for those with disadvantaged backgrounds. 

“I’m a writer, but I’m also dyslexic and I also have four or five different diagnosed learning disorders. All my books are co-authored with partners. And as a writer, I use ChatGPT to help me. It’s making me more effective – having both human collaborators and robot collaborators is teaching me.”

It’s important to welcome these rapid breakthroughs with open arms – not shy away from them. For Lochhead, AI will be a building block of the future instead of the fire that burns it down.

“The people who are going to thrive are the ones that embrace the future, not run from it. That’s always been true and it’s going to be true now. When the commercial Internet exploded in the 90s, it set off a wave of innovation that, at the time, we had never seen before,” Lochhead notes. 

“Creative, forward-leaning people are gonna do amazing things with this technology.

The demos that I’m already seeing from entrepreneurs are incredible, and we’re barely in the first inning. I think it’s time to be excited and to embrace this technology and to get ready for a category of new AI-based innovation.”

A man holding a virtual world.
Designed by Freepik.

Creating stronger workplace connections with technology

As companies continue to support virtual work and rely more on digital tools, it’s essential to leverage these technologies to support our human abilities – but not replace them. 

Living in a digital-first environment doesn’t mean you should disregard work culture entirely. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Adapting the ways your company fosters workplace connections through remote or virtual means is now more important than ever when it comes to hiring and retaining top talent. 

“The team at Airspeed has built a radically connected, super fun, native digital startup. And that’s awesome,” Lochhead says.

Current technologies like Slack and Zoom have already helped us learn how to communicate effectively, but most companies haven’t caught up when it comes to building a meaningful work culture online. AI can help take on the repetitive tasks that add hours to your work so you can focus on the more important things – like spending time connecting with your coworkers.

If your tech stack is stuck in the pre-pandemic days, consider using a platform like Airspeed. Airspeed’s suite of Slack apps helps you build meaningful work moments at every step of the way, from onboarding to daily recognition.

Ready to take your team’s workplace connection to the next level? Unlock free early access and experience the magic of Airspeed today.

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