“You can’t make an omelette with breaking a few eggs.”
Attributed variously to French revolutionary Robspierre, Napoleon or even Lenin, it means it’s impossible to achieve something beneficial without unpleasant side effects. Whatever its historical origins, it’s a very apt saying for the technological age we live in.
While there have been undoubted benefits brought to the world by technological advances – vast savings in time, the ability to communicate with almost anyone on the planet and access huge quantities of information - this hasn’t come without a price. For all the positives new technology brings, there is a dark underbelly that comes with it. It’s important to recognise and acknowledge this to try and mitigate any potential negative effects.
Technology has transformed the world of work completely, particularly office-based roles, very quickly. Email only begun to become widespread in the 90s, while internet access was heavily restricted. Most conversations happened in person or over the phone and virtually only salespeople worked remotely. Fast forward to 2020 and it’s a totally different picture. Through the rapid and widespread adoption of mobile technology, the office is no longer just one location. It can be anywhere – at home, on the train, in a coffee shop, or almost any location.
This revolution has given employees greater freedom and control over how and where they work, but not everything has been positive. More than a few eggs have been broken along the way. What has been the impact of tech’s increasing importance in our work and home lives, and how can employers take steps to embrace the positives while minimising the negatives?
Coping with a pandemic
The world is currently still amid the largest global crisis for a generation. The coronavirus pandemic is having a massive impact on employers and employees, which has transformed how people go about their daily lives. With restrictions on travel and as many employees as possible working from home, the business landscape suddenly looks very different and hugely challenging for many organisations.
Technology helps businesses to carry on…
This is a time when technology really comes to the fore. Numerous tools have been developed to facilitate this remote working revolution. From video conferencing and communication apps to project management and scheduling tools, there are a plethora of aids allowing millions of employees to work successfully remotely. Nearly a quarter of the British workforce now works flexibly across different locations1. This means adjusting to working from home for a prolonged period is not as alien or challenging as it might have been even a decade ago.
…but also spreads panic
While technology can help, working from home is still impossible for many. Those businesses based around hospitality, travel and leisure are going to find the next few months extremely tough and face a frightening future. While the connected world we live in ensures information can be spread very quickly, it also means that rumours and panics can be spread just as fast. Employees are bombarded with messages about what might happen over the next few weeks, fuelling fears and huge levels of anxiety over the future. A rare joint statement from Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube on how they are fighting fake news circulating on their platforms reveals just how many false stories are circulating around the globe2.
Working hours revolution
Advances in technology have effectively killed the traditional 9 to 5 working day, with only 6% of employees saying they work those hours3. Technology has allowed employees the freedom to escape the confines of the office, working during the hours that suit them and their circumstances. Flexible working has become a major priority for large sections of the workforce as they want to create a better work/life balance. Employees over the age of 25 say that flexible working is the most attractive workplace perk and second for those aged 18 to 244.
Technology creates freedom…
Flexible working has huge advantages. It allows many more people access to employment. This is shown by the changing makeup of the UK workforce, which has seen large increases in the number of female and older employees in the past few decades5. Other than salary, flexible working is the thing that will make employees happiest at work6. It also reduces the time and stress associated with the commute, avoiding the daily grind of rush hour travel.
…but can also foster loneliness
However, working flexibly does have its downsides. It means employees can spend much more time on their own, away from their colleagues, fuelling feelings of loneliness and isolation. According to research from the mental health charity, Mind, more than half of UK employees have felt lonely at work7- a huge figure. Home-based workers can feel it particularly keenly. 70% of remote workers feel left out of the workplace, feeling they are on the edge, or not fully included in what’s happening in the office8.
Employers need to be very mindful of this side-effect and invest time in bringing their whole workforce together. Organising regular face-to-face meetings is really important in building relationships and ensuring no worker feels forgotten or undervalued. As well as these, remote employees should be encouraged to call colleagues, rather than email them, as much as possible. Virtual support groups can also be set up for remote workers, where they have a chance to share their experiences and speak to others who know what they are going through.
Humans need social contact. Even tech giants like Google and Apple realise this, designing their offices to allow employees to meet and talk easily and regularly. As Apple CEO Tim Cook told the Wall Street Journal “For all of the beauty of technology and all the things we’ve helped facilitate over the years, nothing yet replaces human interaction.” Employers need to remember this fact and use technology in a way that brings their employees together and doesn’t keep them apart.
Becoming too attached
Around four in five adults in the UK now have a smartphone9, though this doesn’t tell quite the whole story. If you break this down by age, you get a very different picture. According to ONS data, 100% of 16 to 24-year olds have a smartphone and 97% of those aged 25 to 34 have one10. This means there is barely anyone in the millennial generation that doesn’t have access to the internet in their pocket.
Technology connects us…
Smartphones vastly expand how people can communicate. They can talk, text, message, video conference, FaceTime etc. There are so many more channels that connect people and can bring them much closer together. This facilitates a far more flexible approach to work and allows employees to work wherever they are at whatever time suits them. Distance is no longer the obstacle it used to be - employees can work successfully in teams separated by thousands of miles. Information can easily and quickly be sent and received. It also allows employees to access benefits, like GP helplines or counselling, much more discreetly, wherever and whenever they need them.
..but if makes it difficult to switch off
The downside to having the ability to constantly connect is that it becomes incredibly difficult to switch off. 28% of employees say they find it difficult to mentally switch off from their jobs when they are at home because they have the ability to access work emails via their smartphones11. This feeling of being “always on” can be very harmful and have a detrimental impact on mental health. It is very easy for employees to become addicted to checking messages, having a compulsion to look every few minutes to see if there is anything that they’ve missed or something they should be doing. This can become a downward spiral, with employees feeling under constant pressure and never having the change to really relax and properly refresh. 42% of employees recognise this scenario and believe that technology negatively impacts their work/life balance12.
Employers need to be very much aware of this danger and put measures in place to help employees switch off. Senior managers have a responsibility to set the tone for the organisation, encouraging out of hours contact to be kept to a minimum and setting the tone through their own behaviour. Technology can help provide the answers too, for example, emails can be delayed until usual working hours if they are non-urgent. Encouraging employees to keep their phone out of sight while working can also be beneficial, helping to boost their powers of concentration13.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should
Technology has transformed day-to-day life and brought many positives, but it also carries some potentially harmful negatives. Organisations have a responsibility to use technology wisely. Any new initiative should be carefully considered, weighing up the pros and cons. These benefits need to be clear and obvious.
Technology should be introduced because it meets a real need and provides the most appropriate solution to a problem, not because it is the latest trend. Employers need to be mindful not to overload their employees, bombarding them with too much information. Each one needs to find the right balance that enables their employees to make the most of the latest developments while protecting their health and wellbeing.