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Most employers have grappled with the impact of technology on employee job design, work responsibilities, and the leadership decision-making process. The technologies are implemented for many good reasons, including increasing employee productivity and communication. Still, sometimes, the focus is mostly on technology and not on how it impacts the employee experience and the organizational culture. The natural tendency is to expect employees to adapt to the current culture, but what if the technologies change the culture and leaders aren't transparently talking about it? It's no secret that employees can be overwhelmed by new technologies that are regularly popping up in today's work environment.
The feeling of being overwhelmed or burnout that so many employees experience as they try to cope with constant technology-based stress has earned a name: technostress. Your managers and supervisors ignore this side of technology at the risk of allowing a negative or even toxic workplace culture to develop in which technology seems more important than people. Leaders need the right skills and behaviors to maintain employee engagement even as the employee experience changes.
Technology is here to stay, of course, but it's how it stays in an organization that matters to people. Just about any technology program or tool implemented has a two-tier impact. Technology changes how people work, and it changes how people feel about their organization based on how their managers and supervisors address the full impact of change on the employee experience. Technology represents constant change. Even when fully implemented, technology needs frequent updating, revisions, and improvements, and the natural tendency is for leadership to expect more and more from its people.
Researchers investigated technostress as the dark side of technology, defining it as "a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with new computer technologies, affecting mental health in a manner which may manifest as a struggle to accept computer technology, or as over-identification with computer technology. It is also defined more generally as any negative impact on attitudes, thoughts, behaviors, or body physiology that is caused either directly or indirectly by technology." Technostress is real mental and physical stress, and a culture in which employees are expected to adapt at the sake of their well-being quickly becomes a negative culture.
The identified triggers of technostress include the following.
Employees who are mentally exhausted, believe they are incompetent, dissatisfied with their work, and worried about job security are the people who will be least productive and could easily become union organizers in the pro-union age to gain control of their working conditions. A good example is found at Amazon. Workers who promoted union organizing at the Bessemer, Alabama distribution center said the company's technology forces unreasonable workloads, and managers don't care.
A review of the research found technostress influences employee commitment to the organization, job satisfaction, absenteeism, turnover, and other outcomes. Some researchers found employees with technostress experience chronic anxiety, fatigue, and skepticism.
Much has been written about the importance of alignment between leadership behaviors and actions and the organizational culture. In the article titled 6 Signs Your Corporate Culture is a Liability, Sarah Clayton mentions that United Minds' research found that only 28 percent of employees strongly agree that there is alignment between organizational actions and values. When this happens, the culture becomes a liability. Surveys of crisis practitioners on a global basis identified six items that are risks for developing a cultural crisis.
What does this have to do with employees and technology? Consider two of the six risk items. One is inadequate investment in people, like employee training and support. Another risk is a high-pressure environment. Thirty-eight percent of employees surveyed said their companies put profit and growth before values.
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Employees experiencing stress related to fast-changing technology are under pressure to adapt. Mike Elgan discussed technostress in Computerworld, pointing out that people feel compelled to check all incoming communication streams, feel compelled to respond, and will interrupt work to do so. By the end of the day, people are exhausted and blame it on workload when it is the constant mental shifting from one communication medium to another, leading to stress and anxiety.
The separation of work and personal lives no longer exists due to smartphones, social apps, and other technologies. From this perspective, a digital disruption for employees may lower productivity, increasing stress. Couple this with the pressure of learning and staying on top of various work technologies that are always changing, and employee engagement is weakened. Leaders must lead with compassion for the impact of workplace technology on employee well-being to avoid the dark side of technology on humans.
What is needed is a digital culture and not just a digital disruption, according to Microsoft. Digital culture is one in which business leaders champion technology as critical to business success and to helping employees achieve more. The insights for leaders that Microsoft gleaned from a survey of 20,000 people in medium and large companies across industries and in 21 European countries included the following.
Your company culture refers to the values and behaviors that drive the way work is completed. Do they work remotely, have schedule flexibility, collaborate using digital tools, have access to an employee communication platform, get technology upgrades that streamline delivery of customer service, and have input into the tools and technology needed to do their best work? Is your workforce resilient through the continual change process? Digital culture has a technology focus but includes the values of a positive organizational culture. It is technology from a human perspective.
Developing a positive organizational culture that helps employees avoid technostress involves leadership that understands people come first. Your leaders have the right skills and access to the right resources that support people who are using technology. They keep humanity in the technology-driven workplace.
When technology blurs the lines of work and personal lives, it's also important for your leaders to establish work-life balance boundaries. Employees should not be expected to answer emails, log in and work on projects, or respond to work texts outside of their work hours. This doesn't mean avoiding principles like radical flexibility, which puts people first by empowering them to fit work into their lives.
PricewaterhouseCoopers did an interesting survey that found technologies are being selected by companies without staff input.
Multiple surveys have come to the same conclusions. No matter how much technology is implemented, it's important to remember that humans are utilizing it. If your leaders forget that technology is only as good as the people utilizing it, the result is a poor organizational culture driven by technology rather than people. Leaders need transparency, regularity in offline and online conversations, shifting mindset through two-way communication, and inclusive behaviors. They should also make conversations about culture transparent because a lot of assumptions are made by employees that are never spoken out loud. Do you know which employees in your organization are experiencing technostress and find the organizational culture oppressive?
When technology becomes integral to the employee experience, it must be treated as such. Throwing new technologies at employees of any generation without providing the right level of resources, support, and leadership not only can negatively impact the employee experience; it will change the organizational culture. Instead, you need to develop the culture with intent that supports people using the technology rather than letting technology be the culture driver, come what may. Employee engagement principles apply because people are people, even when they are using technology.
With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.