Many thanks to summer vacation student Hannah Meahan for this great review of the potential human cost of new technology in the workplace.
Technology has permeated our everyday lives and workplaces. HR professionals will be aware of the numerous benefits of technology in the workplace – it often ensures that processes are more efficient, increases productivity and maintains a dynamic workforce. However, the enhancement of the workforce using technology or ‘digitalisation of the workforce’, as it is often coined, has led many to fear that it is at the expense of communication.
Acas has reported in its ‘New Technologies and Employment Relations’ report published last month that whilst new technologies are significant to increasing engagement for those who are physically separated, they could also ironically be undermining human connectivity in work spaces where they are physically together. An example cited was Whittington NHS Trust, which has replaced the process of staff personally handing over their morning duties to one another with an iPad. This is seen as quicker than previously and so notionally means that medical professionals can spend more time with their patients. They can also utilise the iPads for videoconferences with their patient and other healthcare specialists regarding their treatment. On the face of it, all good news. However, some patients have reported that the use of an iPad by the medics is a ‘distraction’ and actually reduces genuine communication between the parties.
This demonstrates the potential conflict between technology in the workplace and traditional human interaction. Technological advances at work, such as video Skype calls and remote working have arguably brought remote workplaces closer together. Yet without normal face-to-face communication there is a risk of alienation of colleagues and a less collaborative atmosphere.
It also depends on the type of industry that the technology is being used in. In the creative sector, where communication is essential for ideas or in customer-facing roles where a large part of the job is in verbal communications, technological advances should be treated carefully. I cannot be the only person to struggle sometimes with unreasoning train station ticket machines or automated supermarket tills only to be told robotically and untruthfully that there is an unexpected item in the baggage area and that I need a human being after all. Twice the expense and half the customer satisfaction – we should not introduce technology into the workplace lightly, for the sake of it or without considering the human element.
Before it introduces new developments of any substance there should ideally be focus groups or a trial run by the employer to see whether the technology proposed in the workplace is suitable for the role, what staff training may be necessary and what might be done to replace any loss of the opportunity for human interaction which is usually so important to our enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of our work.
No matter how beneficial it is to technical efficiency, it important to keep a close eye on what harm is being done to staff by your shiny new technology. It ensures you remain agile, efficient and keeping up with the digitised world. However, it should be managed carefully to avoid becoming an obstacle to communication with clients or colleagues. In addition to this, be open to constructive criticism from customers and staff – what works well? How can you improve? The deployment of digital technologies is without a doubt changing the nature of worker’s jobs and should generally be something to be embraced, not feared. It is the burden of the HR professional to ensure that there is a balance between using innovative technology to make the workplace more efficient and ensuring that this is not at the expense of good old fashioned communication! Just because it is quicker or more accurate under “laboratory conditions” does not mean that a new piece of technology will be without side-effects in terms of staff morale or retention. Of course, part of the point of its introduction may be to allow some cost-cutting redundancies, but you do not then also want to find that the new systems are alienating or disenchanting those staff you really needed to keep.