From the development of automated production to wireless communication, technology has fundamentally influenced the way we work. The current shift towards a digital world has driven pronounced changes at an increasing pace, challenging organisations to rapidly rethink their business models. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for organisations to optimise their use of technology to foster productivity during times of extreme change and uncertainty. Yet working with new technologies without proper understanding of their impact on the employee experience risks negative consequences for both business and people in the long term. As people professionals, we need to consider whether we are ready to lead conversations about the human implications of working with different technologies.

The relationship between people and technology is intertwined

Technology is providing people with greater flexibility and autonomy in how – and when – they work. But digital working on multiple devices brings a downside of blurred boundaries between work and personal life, which can be a significant driver of stress. As such, people professionals need to step up to design strategies for using workplace technology in ways that enhance employees’ ability to do their jobs, while limiting the detrimental impact on wellbeing.

Our latest People Profession survey reveals that many organisations are prioritising digital transformation to meet the changing needs of their business. However, our People and machines: From hype to reality report found that HR is the department least likely to be involved in decisions on artificial intelligence and automation. As technology is set to play an even more prominent role in our future working lives, now’s the time to start bridging the gap between organisations’ people strategies and technology strategies. Employers need to better understand the impact of technology on people’s jobs and day-to-day working lives if they are to develop a strategy for using emerging workplace technologies that benefits both business and workforce.

Last year we conducted a survey with UK employees to explore their perspectives on this issue. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the working culture for many has since changed substantially. To reflect this shift, we carried out several focus groups to look at people's experience of working with technology during the pandemic. The insights captured in our report, Workplace technology: The employee experience, provide several reflection points:

Workforces need to be prepared for change

Most workers don’t expect either part or all of their job to be automated in the next 12 months. But they need to be prepared for possible change in the future, and possess the right knowledge and skills to work effectively with new technologies today. Yet our data suggests that there’s a lack of training in place in organisations to support this: Less than 3 in 10 employees who expect their role to be automated in some way have received appropriate training. This is pertinent, given that half of employees who are currently using technology in new ways believe they need to be upskilled to carry out their role.

Engaging the workforce in meaningful dialogue around the use of workplace technology not only provides opportunities for people to air their concerns, but builds confidence in their ability to adapt to change. Although only 35% of employees and/or their representatives have been consulted prior to the implementation of new technology, among those who have been, their expectations of how technology will impact work and business outcomes are largely positive.

People may have misconceptions about the impact technology will have on their job roles, and they may have ideas about how technology could be successfully implemented. If organisations fail to put change management and communication plans in place, the potential benefits of new workplace technologies may not be fully realised.

Digital wellbeing must be prioritised

Many UK workers were already dealing with higher levels of stress even before the coronavirus outbreak hit. Well-being has become an even more immediate priority for people professionals during the pandemic, as our People Profession in 2020 research shows. Working from home during the lockdown has highlighted the risks for maintaining health and wellbeing. Around 3 in 10 employees say that the use of portable devices blurs boundaries between work and home life, or makes it difficult to switch off from work. While video conferencing platforms enable team collaboration, excessive use can lead to digital burnout, damaging motivation and productivity. Some people are also feeling isolated due to a lack of face-to-face interaction, while others are struggling with physical problems as a result of too much screen time or a lack of sufficient desk equipment at home.

Flexible working practices are key to helping workers carve out time for both their work and personal or caring responsibilities. Line managers play a crucial role here in supporting their team members to find a balance so that they don’t feel under pressure to be online and ‘visible’ 24/7. Positively, our data suggests that many people have developed higher levels of trust with their manager as a result of working from home.

If you’re considering implementing new workplace technologies, having conversations with other business leaders is a necessary part of the process. Here are five things for people professionals to bear in mind:

  1. Advocate employees’ views on new technologies.
  2. Address risks associated with its use that may negatively impact the organisation or individuals.
  3. Maintain full transparency across the organisation about the reasons for implementing new technologies. Document positive or negative implications to foster trust.
  4. Understand how technology can enhance aspects of employees’ job quality, such as providing more autonomy or control over working hours.
  5. Develop digital skills within the people function to support transformation.
  6. Use people data and analytics to inform decisions on investment in new technology.

To explore how AI and technology are shaping work, read our latest report, Workplace technology: The employee experience, which investigates worker experiences of new workplace technologies.

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