Good morning, digital co-worker

Psychologically, we’re still cave people in a digital world. We can’t expect people to turn into cybernauts unaffected by all its threats and strains. But, as Monideepa Tarafdar argues, it’s possible for employees to find their own healthy ’flow’ and adapt to working with ‘digital colleagues’ for better productivity and performance.

The vast benefits of ICT in the workplace have sometimes led to a blindness to the obvious. It really doesn’t matter how fast, slick and efficient the new networked web platforms are, they all still need to be used by people.

Now the digital revolution has begun to look more like the norm, familiar and expected and with a reduced sparkle of commercial hype, more attention is being paid to the realities of how people interact with technology and its effects on the everyday psychology and emotions of individuals.

From a series of studies, we've built up evidence of how the introduction of digital ways of working has unintended consequences: technology stress, technology overload, technology addiction and IT misuse in the workplace. The kinds of qualities that make IT useful – dependability, convenience, ease of use and quick processing – may also be harming productivity and people’s well-being.

Technostress comes from the feeling of being forced to multitask using streams of information from different devices and having to constantly learn how to use ever-changing and more complex IT. A survey of 600 employees using ICT regularly as part of their daily routines found that 73% worried that not being constantly connected to their workplaces would place them at a disadvantage by comparison with their peers. Employees confessed to feeling “addicted”. They were spending an average of 23 minutes each day responding to work emails when at home, 43 minutes each weekend day and 43 minutes each day during a holiday break. 65% of employees surveyed said their stress levels had increased due to the blurring of the divide between work and home.

Another aspect of the dark side is that employees can knowingly – or unknowingly – misuse their firm’s IT resources and compromise IT security. It’s very difficult to stop an employee who has authorised access to a system obtaining confidential company information and selling it to outsiders, naïvely using unlicensed software or opening up an email with a virus. The more time and effort employees spend keeping on top of ever changing applications and struggling to swim through gluts of information, the less productive they are at work. They’re more likely to be hasty and rushed in how they deal with information, with less time for thoughtful analysis, thinking through issues and problems, which makes it more likely people will just stick to routines and what they know. Technostress also affects relationships with people having less time generally for clients, partners and colleagues, too distracted by the pull of the screens. Excessive use of IT can harm the wellbeing of both individuals and organisations. We found instances where employees resigned because they found it too stressful to cope with the learning required to use constantly changing computer applications.

How to work with digital co-workers

More employees are going to be working closely with increasingly sophisticated autonomous systems that are more like new digital “colleagues” than two-dimensional software. These kinds of co-workers embody an artificial intelligence that can evolve by constantly learning about the specific task it’s being applied to, spotting mistakes, making use of new solutions learned from its experience when it comes to dealing with subsequent problems. Essentially these are just algorithms that help them tackle a range of tasks, which might be answering call-centre help desk questions, making financial investment decisions, diagnosing medical conditions, scheduling and running manufacturing assembly lines, and providing dashboard advice regarding important performance indicators. But they’re also more like working with a very smart member of the team. And given the complexity of this kind of autonomous system, and the way in which they operate in real-time rather than being switched in and out, it might be impossible or just unnecessary for the people working alongside them to monitor the quality of the answers and service being provided. At the same time, as the scale of data grows and algorithms work faster, there’s a danger from glitches and the potential for “runaway algorithms” - tangles of AI logic that take the system away from real-world issues its trying to deal with. So ultimately, it’s down to the human employees to use their expertise to maintain control over the tasks and processes, to be a good manager to the AI. They need to provide what machines can’t - the context for the decisions and recommendations of their digital partners by monitoring those decisions from time to time and recalibrating them against their own experience, insight, and intuition.

Managers need to be alert to the opportunities and problems in general. That means taking ultimate responsibility in terms of a knowledge of processes, and thinking through how they can make the most of their digital co-workers, just as a manager would with a human team member - how can they deliver more, where’s the scope for innovation?

How to be digitally mindful

Flexible working and ‘always on’ routines have made the traditional nine-to-five workday less meaningful. Managers find it difficult to establish boundaries between work and nonwork. At the same time, technologies are only increasing in terms of their sophistication, richness and seamlessness, and that will lead to their greater use at home for work and vice versa.

By emphasising work-home life balance - and the inevitable tension this includes - managers and human resources policies are ignoring the possibilities of the blending of the two. Employees are also encouraged to think of managing this conflict in terms of combinations that might benefit them. It may well be that the use of technology that enables a continuous flow of meaningful tasks - and they might be work-related or they might not - is more beneficial for managers’ well-being and productivity than this kind of rigid divide.

Managers should start thinking about cultivating a mindful relationship with the technology that enables this. That means organisations will need to support employees in managing the possibilities of flexibility.

It's also important for organisations to be able to help create a climate that encourages employees to really understand the IT they use at work. Mastery of IT is often best achieved by giving employees the resources to “mess around” and experiment with the devices and applications. Users need to learn in less formal and more enriching ways, outside the structured and often limited training model. In general that means managers being more IT savvy, in order to be able to provide direction on what's effective use and what's a distraction.

We all need to learn some digital empathy - not feeling pressurised by the technology choices and preferences of others. Some managers have time, and prefer, to clear their email inbox late at night. That shouldn’t mean this is seen as the rule for everyone. A clash between technology preferences can break down communication between teammates and increase misunderstanding, conflict, and stress. Managers need to appreciate their coworkers’ choices, particularly when they are working on the same teams and projects.

Professor Monideepa Tarafdar is a Professor at Lancaster University Management School.