Technology in the workplace: why culture remains key

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It’s no secret that technology is fundamentally changing the way we work. Communication has been transformed by instant messaging apps, new security measures have been introduced to keep data safe, and tech innovations are proving cost-effective for many. Automation through technology is placing productivity and efficiency at the heart of organisations everywhere, and embracing it prevents businesses wasting time on admin, giving them the space to drive growth and focus on what’s important – people.

Teamwork is being transformed by technology, too. Working together is no longer defined by the limits of face-to-face interactions, teams across the world can now easily connect and work together through video conferencing, a trend which is set to expand as technology such as VR and AR begin to play a more significant role in the workplace. The ability to work remotely demands that workers become reliant on portable technology – mobile phones and laptops are vital in staying connected outside of the office. However, these tools can become too entwined into our lives and blur the distinction between work and leisure time, which can have negative impacts on overall wellbeing.

It’s this constantly plugged in culture that can mean technology is demanding too much of our personal time. For many, it can be difficult to resist the constant urge to respond to notifications immediately, as work feels closer than ever on our smartphones. Often moving from impulsive to stress-inducing, the need to immediately respond to emails and complete work prevents staff from mentally switching off. A cohort of always on-call staff might seem ideal, but the inability to find the time to wind down can be enormously detrimental, with damaging physical and mental health implications, so it’s important that we understand and assess our relationship with technology in the workplace and beyond.

It’s not clear cut

For some, the answer to confronting presenteeism as an issue is to impose a ban on using technology outside of work altogether. France has introduced a ban on emails after hours which is designed to prevent people from becoming overworked and stressed out. At first glance, this appears to be a sensible move to prevent employees from burning out, giving them the space to relax. But plans for similar legislation in the UK are said to ‘harm employees wellbeing’, as for some, being able to check emails and complete tasks after hours allows them to successfully meet deadlines or strive for that promotion. So it’s evidently a difficult line to tread.

A desire to work after hours reflects a much larger movement toward flexible working – the traditional 9-5 structure is continuing to phase out, as employees are increasingly building their work days on their own terms and are searching for roles that allow them to do so. A recent survey from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation revealed that two fifths of people prefer to work flexibly, so it’s clearly a driving factor behind job satisfaction and something which should be top of every company’s agenda. If businesses don’t recognise this trend then they risk falling behind the times.

Smartphones have firmly become an extension of ourselves – it’s not often that we’re without them, even at work. Using personal technology at work must be accompanied by a certain level of trust and, all too often, smartphones are used by employees for checking social media, online shopping or communicating with friends when they should be working. This can have an adverse impact on productivity and can prevent tasks from being completed.

Making sure that employees don’t overstep the line when using technology is difficult, but enforcing a total ban on the use of smartphones is not the answer to navigating our relationship with technology in the workplace. Using phones during a short break can provide a welcome relief from the pressure of work and often, they are needed to contact clients, arrange childcare or deal with something urgent, for example. For many, being without their phone at work just isn’t a viable option.

A recent report from The Times discussed plans to impose an outright ban on the use of smartphones at work and unsurprisingly found that this could become a key source of friction between employers and staff. So banning phones at work could come across very ‘school rules’ and far too authoritarian. Imposing restrictions on employees gives the impression that they are not to be trusted and can create tension in the workplace.

Technology and culture: not one without the other

Having a strong company culture that underpins all of an organisations’ operations can be helpful in managing how we interact with technology and can prevent it from becoming a sticking point at work. An environment of tolerance, understanding and honesty can encourage employees to talk about a range of issues they find challenging with other people, including the pressures imposed by technology and their impact on mental health. Equally, if trust is an integral part of the workplace, employees may feel more confident in approaching a manager to discuss their needs to use smartphones at work or their preference to work outside of established hours.

Senior managers can lead by example when it comes to technology – making an effort to disconnect at the weekend and using their phone during office hours can create a culture of equality and mutual understanding. Pioneering flexibility is a key management strategy which is essential for understanding our relationship with technology, too. What’s important to recognise here is that everyone works in different ways, so introducing restrictions on technology and applying one-size-fits-all models are unlikely to succeed.

Giving staff the freedom to work on their own terms with technology is a positive step towards an inclusive and productive workplace, and although managing our relationship with technology in the workplace is no easy task, it’s clear that introducing blanket approaches are unlikely to be effective – because, above all, managing technology requires flexibility. In any case, it’s clear that implementing a strong company culture to guide changes is a firm step in the right direction.

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