The rapid advance of technology has had a seismic impact on the ways companies do business—probably the equivalent of a 9.0 on the Richter scale. Just consider the impact of Wi-Fi, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and social media, and the ways they have not only dramatically changed business operations but also business culture.
What are the positives and negatives of the high-tech environment?
It’s an issue that can’t be ignored because technological capabilities will continue to rapidly expand, way beyond those of today and in ways that most of us can’t even begin to imagine. As I outline in my book Culture Spark: 5 Steps to Ignite and Sustain Organizational Growth:
- Transparency and Democracy: The digital world makes data sharing easy. What once might have been closely held by top leaders, either out of necessity or arbitrarily, now flows easily. Maybe it was just too cumbersome to distribute throughout the ranks, or maybe the select privileged few wanted to keep it that way as a means of control, competitive advantage, or power. But now, online chat sessions permit employees at all levels to quiz senior executives and directly deliver input in ways they never could before. More informed and involved employees equal engaged and happier employees, which leads to more productive employees.
- Informality: In many organizations, casual Friday has become “casual every day”. It’s happening in communications too. Casual (that is, incorrect) grammar and punctuation, as well as the use of emojis has begun to permeate organizations. (And I’m not so sure that’s such a good thing.) But these changes are examples of the way communication is changing corporate culture.
- Collaboration: Online shared sites have made collaboration easier than ever. It’s possible to share ideas and give feedback, whether it’s to a colleague across the hall or across the globe. You can create projects together and track performance. This can also reduce barriers between upper and lower management, as well as across cultural divides.
- Research: Cloud-based computing provides instant access to company databases, no matter where we are, and from the shelves of the largest libraries anywhere.
- Freedom: Employees no longer have to be chained to their desks from 9:00 to 5:00. They don’t have to wade through dozens of manila folders stuffed with paper. They can look up data online, wherever they happen to be. This means an increasing emphasis on remote working and a flexible workplace. It offers the ability to steer clear of a frustrating and nonproductive hour-long commute. Employers who permit flexible work hours are rewarded with a decrease in absenteeism and employee turnover and an increase in morale and productivity.
So, what’s the downside of this hyper-connected techno world? For one thing, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey suggests that employees between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four receive about thirty text messages every day . . . while at work. We know how those pinging alerts are irresistible, but apart from the time taken to read and respond to them, the distraction from a work project can lead to errors, even though a ban on texting can make employees feel suffocated, controlled, and resentful.
The authors of a Deloitte Insights article provided another reason why the constant use of smart phones may not be such a good thing: “With everyone hyper-connected, the reality may be that employees have few opportunities to get away from their devices and spend time thinking and solving problems.”
Another downside is that the ubiquity of technology propagates an “always on” work ethic where employers can require employees to answer emails or texts and perform tasks outside of office hours. Employees are either expected to be connected 24/7 or take it upon themselves to be wired-in all the time. This risks employee burnout and disillusionment, especially among millennials, who, in particular, seek a healthy work-life balance.
What’s an employer to do? Is it a matter of accepting that this is just the way it is, or should we try and implement some kind of phone restrictions? Should we insist that employees have designated downtime when they can disconnect and be free of work concerns? Perhaps issue guidelines on sending emails? Do all those people really need to be cc’d? One trend we see with our clients is no-email Fridays.
We need to be masters of technology and not slaves to technology. Technology is nothing more than a tool. It’s how you use that tool that matters. It can be a force for good or bad. It’s up to you. More importantly, know how you will use technology. A mastery of it is essential, especially as millennials and generation after become the majority.