In this new blog series, we are discussing technology and humanity with TPC Leadership Partner Hilary Harvey. This week we ask the question, ‘Is technology really serving us?’
Technology and Humanity
Technology already underpinned the work of many organisations before they started critically relying on it for remote working. In fact, it was already the substructure for much of our lives. From searches to social media and from personal data to algorithms – tech has been embedded in our existence for a while.
“The question of whether technology is serving us is first important to ask in the more general sense,” says Hilary Harvey, associate partner at TPC UK. “Are we embracing technology without casting a critical eye on the situation? Because if we’re not careful, we can carry that same mindset into our work.”
Most organisations are relying even more on technology since the pandemic. And in many ways it has been a huge enabler to keep going. But now that the remote situation doesn’t appear to be close to changing, and we’re into the longer-term slog, leaders have to ask, ‘Who is the tech really serving? Is it helping us to connect and work as a team – or not?’
Are our organisations becoming tech-centric?
Hilary mentions an organisation who in the shift to remote working have required their teams to log onto a system at 8:30/9am so they can show they are at their desk for every hour of the working day. The organisation’s scope is ironically around employee rights, yet Hilary argues they have chosen to embrace a tech model that is “not about the quality of people’s work but presenteeism.”
There’s another organisation who require employees to have their video on constantly, so they can check they are being productive. “That’s a totally non-human-centric way of using technology,” says Hilary. This makes the anxiety already generated by the pandemic more acute.
The danger is that we are becoming tech-centric. Not because it serves us but because the equation appears to be better technology = better business. But the capabilities of technology do not matter as much as how technology is used.
“If the tech determines whether you’re a good employee or not,” says Hilary, “and we think about the impact of that, if people have to work like that for another six months, what is that going to do to them?”
“Tech should serve humans,” says Hilary. “Humans should not be enslaved to tech.”
Do our organisations facilitate good boundaries with technology?
“There’s lots of talk in the trade I’m having with HR leaders about Zoom fatigue,” says Hilary. Whereas conversation had the potential to energise people before, it has more potential to drain you on a video call. Even when a meeting is branded as a social opportunity, it is difficult to feel the invitation to relax.
“We’re still living our lives online,” says Hilary, “and even as restrictions ease in some parts of the world, we’re perhaps not able to have as many boundaries before. So you end up working, socialising and entertaining in the same kind of medium.”
This fatigue can be detrimental to team dynamics and a sense of real connection in organisations. And while leaders need to take personal leadership and manage their screen boundaries proactively to reduce the negative impact of that, we need to go further.
“Much of the conversation is around the personal,” says Hilary, “Around what you can do to manage as an individual. But people are not talking so much about what organisations need to do, or what leaders need to do.”
How can you tell if tech is serving your organisation?
For leaders to measure the benefits and downsides of tech – to get real answers as to whether technology is serving the organisation – they need to have good relationships with those they lead. Because otherwise an honest dialogue is going to be very difficult right now.
“I’ve been speaking to a leader from a big housing organisation,” says Hilary, “and they tell me nobody wants to feel like they’re rocking the boat. Because if there’s redundancies coming because there’s cuts that need to be made – which there are – then people don’t want to feel at risk of that.”
That is significant. If leaders can’t get an accurate measure on what it feels like to be in their team’s shoes, a disconnect will begin to emerge between what leaders are addressing and what the real problems are.
“If people are going to continue to be motivated, you need to create a good relationship with them, now more than ever. There’s so much more pressure, so much more stress. That’s the distributed effect of the pandemic – and everyone’s feeling it.”
And this in turn poses its own set of questions. If people are keeping their heads down, how can leaders inspire trust when the only available means to create the necessary connection is riddled with fatigue? And if technology isn’t serving us, is there an alternative?
How can we adapt our approach?
There isn’t an easy answer. But we can begin to move towards solutions by changing our focus. Just as we pivoted to remote working, so now we need to pivot to become human-centric again, instead of tech-centric.
“If you care about the sustainability of the organisation,” says Hilary, “you need to care about the sustainability of the people who work there.” This has always been a need in organisations. “But any issues that were underlined before have become more prevalent now. It’s been magnified. So it’s even more important to offer support now.”
Technology has been a huge enabler for the early stages of coping with the pandemic. But now we need to understand its role in the long term of an organisation – and that starts by reframing the questions we ask ourselves as leaders: How do we facilitate relationships of trust remotely? Are we looking to tech to hold those relationships together? What could be a better answer?
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