The two-edged sword of tech

We all know that technology is transforming the world of work, in terms of where, when, how we work, the type of work we do and the way that we are organised to do work. This change is profound but is it a positive or negative?

Technology is, in itself, neutral. It’s how we choose to apply it that determines that. The ability to work at any time and any place can give freedom to some but can trap others in an always on call, constant demand and surveillance nightmare.

In a recent presentation by Paul Litchfield, Chair of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, he pointed out that the unintended consequences of real time data

  • Top teams tend to micromanage
  • Middle management is disempowered
  • Management layers are reduced
  • Managers focus on spreadsheets not people
  • Support to the front line is compromised
  • Opportunities for advancement diminish
  • Inequalities between top and bottom grow

That sounds pretty grim. The top team playing with their Digital Dashboards and reducing people to numbers in spreadsheets is a recipe for some pretty bad management behaviours and a toxic workplace. The lack of focus on and connection with the people leads to dehumanisation and the spread of workplace loneliness (I didn’t even know this was a thing until recently but it seems it’s an epidemic of people feeling alone despite being surrounded by their work colleagues).

But it doesn’t have to be like that. New organisation structures and cultures can be equally enabled by technology. The ability for information to flow in all directions allows hierarchies to be reduced and even dismantled. Technology can increase connection between the people in an organisation; between top and bottom; and between the organisation and it’s ecosystem of customers, suppliers and partners. 

A great example is Buurtzorg, a leading example of a self-managed organisation that has revolutionised community healthcare delivery in the Netherlands and is starting to do the same elsewhere. Key to its success is its intranet, which enables all the people in the organisation to connect with each other, find expertise and support and to participate in a whole-company debate on purpose and strategy. Without the technology, Buurtzorg simply couldn’t have happened and the positive impacts on the staff and on their patients couldn’t have been realised. 

So what’s the difference? Well, it’s about intent and focus. Traditional businesses that focus only on the numbers and efficiency will use technology in a way that impairs the lives of their people. Businesses that focus on positive outcomes will use technology to deliver those outcomes by enhancing the lives of their people.

It’s not inevitable that technology creates toxic workplaces but in today’s efficiency and profit -obsessed business models, that’s a more likely outcome. However, with intention we can ensure it doesn’t and use it to create a better workplace that realises the potential of the people and enables that little bit of magic that we all seek.

It’s a choice. I’m very clear what mine is. What’s yours?

Image by azboomer from Pixabay

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