The past twenty years have seen more rapid technological change than any other period in human history. This has had a profound effect on social interaction and human psychology. Most notably, increased data speeds, web 2.0, and invention of smart phones, have created a situation where continuous connectivity is the new norm. The answer to every request for information, or fulfilment of any desire, is literally at our fingertips 24 hours a day seven days per week. This has fundamentally changed how we socialise and interact. But more importantly, it has also changed our expectations of each other. We are no longer happy with any type of interaction that does not result in instantaneous gratification. When we make an online enquiry for a hotel room, restaurant table, or flight, we expect an instant answer as to availability and prices. A retailer being ‘out of stock’ is now unacceptable to us, we simply browse to another retailer. Most of us are now accustomed to having our friends, partners, or family members immediately contactable, and this can often become an expectation. The newest messaging software even tell us when a message has been viewed by a recipient, whether or not the recipient intends that to be conveyed.
The social and psychological impact of this change is well documented in terms of our personal and family relationships, but how is this affecting us at work?
The Instant Workplace
It is common to hear that technology in the modern workplace has delivered greater efficiency of communication, access to information and subsequent flexibility in how we work. But while technology has offered us greater options in how we approach problems, it has also raised the bar on how quickly we are expected to respond to requests, and how legitimately we are able to disengage when not at work. The separation of personal and professional life has, in many cases, become quite blurred. What should workplaces be doing to cope?
Management of employees
The new era of instant expectations has led to requirement of a more proactive approach from managers. It is reported that ‘Millennials’, a generation who have often been unfairly criticised at work, are well known to require more feedback on their work than their ‘Gen-X’ or ‘Baby Boomer’ colleagues. But is this really surprising? This is a generation who have grown up with Instagram and Facebook, where a ‘selfie’ will potentially receive hundreds of engagements from friends and acquaintances within the first hour. Is it therefore fair to expect employees to wait six-monthly intervals before discussing the standard of their work? We accept that young people are forming personal relationships in radically different ways than previous generations, yet we expect them to form professional relationships according to an older, less responsive, model. This does not mean that managers should feel the need to bestow false praise. Feedback can be as real or honest as the manager is comfortable with. But there is no question that managers will get more out of the modern workforce by providing at least some requirement for instantaneous interaction with their subordinates.
Traditional conceptions of ‘work/life balance’ have regarded the workplace as a physical entity, rather than a ‘state of mind’. It does not contemplate a society that is able to continue working during commute time and then into the evenings and weekends at home. As more workplaces move their data into the cloud, and as more and more employees begin to have the ability to work remotely, at what point should the workplace be responsible for ensuring that a work/life balance is maintained? If an employee receives an email, message or call at 10.00pm from a co-worker or a supervisor they may feel pressured to respond and even angry that work is intruding on their personal time. In some workplaces, this has created an invisible culture of ‘cloud presenteeism’.
The role of Internal Policy
One thing is clear: the workplace does bear some responsibility in ensuring that these consequences of technology are limited as much as possible. The most important tool for employers in this regard is the effective implementation of internal policy and education programs where necessary. By doing this, employers are not only showing an awareness for their employees’ wellbeing, they are also establishing effective barriers in the event that some form of disciplinary action is needed.
As well as broad policy documents for the whole workplace, it is also important that the employer identifies their expectations of each role. What type of response times are reasonable in any given situation? How much, if at all, is an employee expected to engage with email after hours? As we enter the brave new era of hyper-connectivity at work, with the possibilities of interactions almost limitless, it is important for employers to be seen setting the new rules.