Jonathan Richards, CEO and co-founder of Breathe looks at how small business owners can manage the technology their team use in the workplace.
Technology has an enormous presence in our everyday lives and its capabilities are undoubtedly reshaping life in the workplace, too. It’s what keeps the modern workplace running smoothly and introduces efficiencies at every level, while also increasing productivity through automation. Applied to business, it creates space for employees to focus on driving growth rather than wasting time on admin.
It’s not just at work, though. Our smartphones have firmly become an essential tool in our personal lives as well as work, and this is where the lines between the two begin to blur. There’s no question that technology is introducing new dimensions to teamwork; employees are no longer constrained to the limits of face to face meetings, and offsite collaboration is now perfectly possible thanks to video conferencing, for example. Nowadays there’s no need to be chained to a desk at all times, with access to employer networks available from phones and home laptops – there’s no doubt that with this new boundless access comes responsibility to create new boundaries between work and private life.
With this in mind, as technology becomes more ubiquitous in our everyday lives and the workplace, it’s important to assess our relationship with it. Knowing when to draw the line with using technology is difficult. The instant engagement at work is of course very useful to increase efficiency, but there can be a tendency to feel the need for immediate response even outside work, which can create an ‘always on’ culture where employees feel pressured to work outside of office hours to get jobs done. This can negatively impact employee mental health, the lingering thought of outstanding work preventing staff from mentally switching off and relaxing.
Switch on to switch off?
Use of personal technology at work comes with a certain level of trust – it can become a distraction at work if management doesn’t keep usage in check. Employees checking their personal phone, using social media or shopping online during work hours can negatively impact productivity and prevent them from completing tasks. However, for some, the short breaks pose a welcome relief and are comforting, which can keep staff morale up. The problem is, how do we measure this? And how do we make sure employees don’t overstep the line?
This conversation is timely given that a recent report from The Times found that plans to ban smartphones at work in an effort to aid productivity could actually become a new source of friction between employers and workers.
Elsewhere, recommendations to ban employees from accessing emails outside of working hours in order to alleviate pressures on staff is also said to ‘harm employees wellbeing’. What’s causing some tension around this argument is that for some, checking emails in their own time actually eases anxiety, for worriers who feel they aren’t able to fit in their work into the day. Applying strict rules to technology usage in this way could be a wrong move for businesses. It’s clear that navigating our relationship with technology in the workplace is not easy.
Where culture comes in
Developing a strong company culture can prevent technology from becoming a sticking point between employers and employees. Openness and honesty are the key attributes of an organisations’ culture that give employees the confidence to speak candidly about a variety of issues, so they’re important to cultivate. This approach can open up discussions on presenteeism in the workplace and the problems it poses for mental health – an important step for removing the need to work outside of office hours.
Leading by example is another important aspect of company culture – senior leaders can demonstrate good practices by taking the time to switch off outside office hours and resist answering emails around the clock. Delineating clear boundaries should trickle down from the top.
Banning phones at work, frankly, would be giving a strong authoritarian message that probably won’t go down well with most staff. From time to time, employees might need to use their phones during work hours to arrange childcare or to deal with something urgent. Preventing them from using their devices during working hours then will not only directly affect their personal lives in this way, but will give them the impression that they aren’t to be trusted.
Equally, an attempt to ban out-of-office email activity is hugely problematic – how would employers go about monitoring this? What it all really boils down to is trust between management and staff.
Flexibility is key
Flexibility is a key part of company culture which is important for managing the role of technology in the workplace. When it comes to working style, it’s important to recognise that there is no-one-size-fits-all approach and not everyone will work best within a traditional office environment. To support this, a recent survey by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation two fifths of people prefer to work flexibly. These findings clearly suggest that work patterns and behaviours are changing, and businesses must adapt to reflect this if they hope to remain competitive. After all, it’s people driving business, and allowing them to work effectively in whichever way they prefer should be top of every companies’ agenda.
For some, a blanket ban to working out of hours could cause some serious anxiety, but we need to explore ways to support staff both at work and outside, as both are inextricably linked. Combatting the ‘always-on’ culture is no easy task. But there are ways to offer support in this overwhelmingly digital world — flexibility and trust must remain a key priority when addressing how employees interact with technology. Demonstrating you value your staff enough to let them choose how they work best is what will make a difference.