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Simone Cheng: Losing or tech-ing control?

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Simone Cheng, Acas Policy Adviser discusses new technologies and the workplace.

Simone Cheng Simone Cheng


Acas Policy Adviser.




Whilst humanoid Atlas has yet to back-flip its way into our workplaces and replace us all, there are plenty of examples of technology being used in our working lives. But what exactly is its impact on employee relations? Acas commissioned the IPA to conduct research on just that, and last week we held a Breakfast Briefing on this topic in central London. So, before rushing through technological change, consider these interesting discussion points:

Why don't machines come with health warnings?

New technologies can be great for business and enable individuals to work more flexibly. Yet on the flipside (cue Atlas), we may be in danger of becoming addicts. Leslie Willcocks, Professor at London School of Economics and Political Science, noted the link between unhappiness and mobile usage, yet there are 280 million of us suffering from nomophobia, an irrational fear of being without our mobile phones.

Being unable to disconnect can result in social isolation, removing the need for face-to-face interactions conducive to productivity and wellbeing. As evident from Jaguar Land Rover, one of the case studies in our research, new technology can also give rise to a growing silence on the shop floor.

Employers need to identify the potential impacts on both mental and physical health and ensure a wellbeing strategy is in place.

Are we at risk of dehumanising ourselves?

The prospect of technology reducing or removing monotonous tasks may be welcome, but employers need to be mindful of the consequences of job changes. As pointed out by Acas' Head of Strategy Gill Dix, technology can also take away the discretion we have in choosing how we work, leaving us feeling powerless and demotivated. Organisations will need to shift their focus on new ways of engaging staff to ensure good work.

And there is no doubt that human input is irreplaceable, after all, it is we who decide what goes into the technology. Even the new Walmart robot floor cleaner, Emma, shows signs of gender stereotyping in its choice of name - a careful reminder that we need to be wary of our own unconscious biases seeping in.

Do we need a pause button?

In situations where technology is advanced faster than it is implemented, organisations run the risk of overloading their workers and causing them to crash like our computers. Whilst not a solution, Anne Gauton, Principal at Capgemini, recommended that change could be broken down into smaller chunks to minimise the risk of change fatigue.

Mike Clancy, General Secretary and Chief Executive of Prospect and Acas council member, suggested organisations could well-invest in the value of pause to embed the benefits. Taking a step back and prioritising employee voice is essential. Change of any kind can be unsettling, so consult and engage early. As Jaguar Land Rover's Senior HR Leader Mark Wilson said, it's important to have a clear vision and a robust strategy to build trust, engagement and understanding amongst workers.

So, whilst technology has its benefits - it can increase productivity and enrich our working lives - it can seem a double-edged sword. Poor work-life balance and the potential dehumanising effects can counteract the intended rewards technology can bring.

I'd welcome your thoughts and personal experiences on these critical issues.

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