Technology has had a profound effect on most areas of our lives, but none more so than on the way we work. Today most of us don’t think twice about receiving – and responding to – work mails at any time of the day or night. Because we can be equally productive whether we’re at home, in the train or in the office, we find we’re going into the office less, but still getting more done. As the lines between business and personal continue to blur, some interesting dynamics are coming into play in the way people interact with one another, with their employers and with the technology that surrounds them. Kathy Gibson investigates.
But we’re not actually evolving into a different, more connected species – at least, not yet.
Dr Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures at BT Technology, Service and Operations, points out that the human brain hasn’t actually evolved in the last couple of generations, but the plethora of tools that we now have access to are helping to augment it.
“There is a body of neuroscience work that looks at the effect on teenage brains of the constant bombardment of communications and flipping over of multiple communications channels. “The effect we are seeing is that the neural clusters are getting less dense, through not having to remember so much. So attention spans are down, and we are losing the ability to process things that take longer than 10 seconds.
“And it’s not just children: my attention span is going down too. It’s because we are multi-tasking, and coping with constant interruptions.”
This multi-tasking, or effective juggling of attention is tiring, Dr Millard adds, and can cause problems in the workplace.
“Productivity starts to suffer, and workers leave things unfinished because they are interrupted. When people are interrupted from compelling tasks or problems it can take 12 to 20 minutes to get back into that thought pattern. And research shows that workers are being interrupted once every three minutes during an average working day.”
But it’s not just during the traditional working day that these interruptions are happening: people’s sleep is getting interrupted too, and this could have longer-term effects.
“If you consistently get just four to five hours’ sleep per night, you could end up with ADHD (Attention Disorder, Hyperactive Disorder) where your attention span is down and moods fluctuate, leading to bad decision-making,” Dr Millard says. “This is particularly true among top executives.”
Some European countries have responded to this problem by legislating when workers can be contactable, but this could be adverse for global organisations.
Once they understand the potential negative effects on technology in the workplace, and balance it with the considerable positive effects, organisations are then in a better position to plan those workplaces more effectively.
The main benefit that technology brings to the party, says Dr Millard, is the ability to collaborate and establish common ground. The caveat to this is that the depth and breadth of technology available means there’s danger of fragmentation.
“Collaboration is all about establishing common ground, so we need to start putting all the different media together,” she says.
E-mail still has a place in this collaborative world, although it’s better used as an information tool. Social media, on the other hand, isn’t good at profound collaboration.
“You can put an idea out there, and we can have a conversation about it, but it’s better at peripheral awareness. For good collaboration, you need strong ties and the easiest way of achieving this face-to-face. So we are seeing an interchange between social media and face to face communication.”
The problem is that audio and visual clues are missing from most social media conversations, and some of these nuances can be lost even with the telephone or videoconferencing. “Face-to-face communication isn’t going to die out,” Dr Millard says. “In some high-touch cultures it is essential to doing business.”
New advances in video and voice communication could soon start to overcome some of the challenges of using these media, with new and improved voice quality now available to capture more of the nuances and verbal “clues” that people usually pick up only from physical contact.
The big thing for organisations to consider, Dr Millard says, is personal choice – and giving employees access to the communications medium that best suits them.
“Personality type often dictates what users like or don’t like,” she says. “For instance, introverts like thinking about things a bit more, and usually don’t like videoconferencing but typically prefer text. Extroverts, on the other hand, love video, but are not necessarily good on Web chat.
“The challenge for managers is that one size doesn’t fit all, and they need to find ways of offering choice while avoiding fragmentation. You need to provide the tools, while understanding that people collaborate in different ways.”
One of the ways companies can start cutting through the challenges is in office design. Some companies opt for different work spaces that can be used for different projects or types of work, with noisy, collaborative spaces near the cafeteria, for example, and quiet zones out towards the edges of the building. Others give employees the choice of working at home or at the office.
“The key here is choice,” says Dr Millard. “People work better if you give them more choice. The office itself can almost become a collaboration tool, where people catch up.”
And the benefits are clear, she adds. “If you give employees more choice, if they have more control over their lives, they are usually less stressed – especially those in high-demand jobs. From the employer’s perspective, giving more them more choice creates better employee engagement.”
Of course, there are some downsides, mainly because plenty of choice opens up the possibility of fragmentation where employers potentially lost control. So they have to draw boundaries, says Dr Millard, and to think about how they track what people are doing. “There are useful tools that can be used for this; for instance, for most knowledge workers you can switch to measuring output rather than hours in the office.”
Mike Ettling, global head of cloud and on-premise HR at SAP, points out that most people to go backward in their technology experience when they go to work – and the human resources (HR) department and CIO need to work together to reverse this trend.
“If you don’t do that, you risk losing engagement,” Ettling says. “When we think about designing HR technology, it has to be as fun, exciting and engaging as it to use at home when you are playing games.”
But technology isn’t just changing the relationship with people in the workplace. Ettling points out that it’s changing the very nature of work as well.
“A big phenomenon we are seeing in HR at the moment is the contingent workforce,” he says. “Since the last recession, the growth in contingent labour has outstripped permanent labour. And not just in the blue collar workforce – it includes professional people as well.”
For the HR department, this means a new way of looking at and managing the labour pool. Traditionally, contingent labour has been a purchasing decision made at a line of business level, but now there’s a need to manage these people within the talent pool.
“We need to find new ways to identify talent, which means doing light performance appraisals with contingent workers, keeping the information and then recruiting the right people when needed.”
In fact, the whole concept of employment is being rethought in some circles, he says. “Contingent labour and crowdsourcing are starting to converge, and companies are already thinking about new ways of employing people. The idea that everyone has to be on the payroll is fast eroding; it’s now quite possible to have a contingent workforce.”
Talent management is another HR issue that has seen a lot of activity in the past, but Ettling believes companies have still not managed to solve the puzzle.
“The issue at the top of the CEO agenda is still talent management because existing systems are still not working for competitive advantage,” he says. “We have been putting a lot of thought into the next generation of performance management.”
One of the new trends is a move away from GE-style forced performance ranking to a more ecosystem-based environment where customers and the extended ecosystem of stakeholders feed into performance management.”
The technology most driving change in HR world is cloud computing, Ettling adds, with innovation available at a far greater pace than it can ever happen in an on-premise environment.
“There has been a lot of stagnation in the HR world for a long time,” he says. “But the chief HR officer still has a better seat in the boardroom that the CIO, who is currently grappling for relevance.
“We see that budgets are going back to the line of business, and they are using them to buy cloud solutions. The impact of cloud computing is far more pervasive than just a change of technology or a change of deployment models; it is having a profound impact across the business and in how the business operates.”
The end result, Ettling says, will be the highly networked corporation.
“Today, most people are permanently employed. But this will move to networked, crowdsourced work. Companies will build teams to do things – and then disband them. Accounting has done this for a while; putting together teams for audits. Now this kind of teaming will happen globally.”
Ettling practices what he preaches in terms of the virtual worker. “I haven’t had an office for 10 to 12 years,” he says. “And I’ve been the CEO of a company, and the president of a big division; but never had pressure from any boss to be there all the time. You need to be around when you need to be around and trust people to do what needs to be done.
“Managers have to get their heads around trust. Technology can enable the new workplace, but people must do what they need to do to come together.”
SAP’s cloud headquarters in San Francisco is a case in point, Ettling says, where there are no offices or desks but just meeting rooms.
“We are designing physical spaces to promote the networking world. People come to work because they want to interact.”
And it’s not just Generation X and Generation Y workers who are taking to the new ways of working. “At one stage I thought we would have to have different models and different technologies for different people,” says Ettling. “But Baby Boomers are using and engaging with technology just as much as the younger generations.
“I think that if something is easy to use, you will get engagement. In the past, technology was more difficult to use to so you got these different attitudes.”
The cloud takes away a lot of the complexity traditionally associated with technology.
“Software as a service (SaaS) melts a lot of the business processes, both from an automation and ease-of-use perspective,” he says. “You are now getting new levels of productivity and efficiency in the organisation.
“Cloud has turned out to be so much more of a disruptive trend. It’s not even so much about the technology; it’s about how it’s changing the business.”
Ettling adds that the concept of “no-HR” is starting to take off in many organisations. “The idea is that HR is really there to enable the CEO and the business agenda – and that’s what it should be doing; not creating its own HR empire or dynamic. We used to talk about shifting from transactive to transformative HR – moving from administration to talent management. Now, the next shift is the world of no-HR, where HR is a tool to enable the business agenda.”