Technology, I’m told, is cool. Pictures of people queuing impatiently at midnight to get their hands on the next version of a sleek tablet or smartphone clearly show technology has powerful and seductive qualities that are hard to resist.
Some of us even define ourselves aspirationally according to which of the brands we identify with. In case you’re interested, on the Apple to Android continuum, I’m an IBM Golfball.
There was a time not so long ago when conventional wisdom told us technology would also be cool at work. It would liberate workers from routine and drudgery. Computing power and robotic ingenuity would take over the tasks that were most readily automated, allowing us all more time for leisure and self-improvement. The promise was that machines would do our bidding, and that our more highly-educated workforce would fashion a competitive, knowledge-based economy which would improve quality of life for all.
However, despite a substantial body of research showing that giving employees more autonomy and control leads to productivity growth, the UK in the last decade has been moving in the opposite direction. Oxford professor Duncan Gallie and his colleagues found strong evidence of declining ‘task discretion’ and a significant reduction in autonomy in UK jobs. Similarly, researchers Michael White and Stephen Hill suggest that while employees may have more freedom to decide how they deliver their targets, employers operate more rigorous regimes of accountability through sophisticated performance management systems and extensive surveillance. Both studies show some workers have less control in their jobs than a decade ago, and that the use of IT in the workplace is one of the key areas for the erosion of autonomy.
Some workers express concern that technology is being used as a performance tool that undermines trust. Service engineers, for example, driving between jobs to repair or install equipment, complain about the scrutiny of technology and the lack of trust it engenders. “Our cabs are fitted with a ‘tracker’ device. It’s a spy in the cab to see where we are, when we’re on the move, and when we’re not. They won’t trust us to get on and do a job we’ve done well for years,” says one.
In sharp contrast, there are examples where employees have been spectacularly liberated through the introduction of new technology. A few years ago I was involved in a study to measure what happened in an IT business when staff were first given access to smartphones and broadband at home. Besides the impact the new ‘kit’ had on their ability to check emails on the move and work more flexibly, about half of those involved reported that their work productivity had increased by between 50% and 100%. Many also said this technology enhanced their perception of the company as a ‘cool’ place to work.
So technology pulls in two directions – sometimes reducing autonomy, sometimes stimulating creativity. Perhaps in workplaces where there is already a climate of distrust or cynicism, technology will be met with distrust, if the apparent liberty of ‘always-on technology’ leads to the tyranny of ‘always-on work’.
The bigger challenge is for managers to resist the temptation to ‘dumb down’ work just because job insecurity is high and they’re under pressure to deliver results. With an ever more qualified workforce, who have higher expectations of work, the last thing we should do if we want people engaged and productive is to squeeze all the excitement, challenge and variety from their jobs.
Stephen Bevan (pictured) is director of the workforce effectiveness centre at the Work Foundation
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