Is your technology fit for human consumption?

Covid jolted our workforces into tech literacy – there wasn’t a choice. Now it’s time to check whether your new technology actually works for your employees.

This article originally appeared in Newsroom.

It was more than 18 months ago that Grant Frear first started talking about “humanising technology” - not just for customers but for employees. 

“It felt like the peak of a whole lot of technology being shovelled down the throats of employees, not just in New Zealand, but globally,” says the Deloitte senior strategy and digital partner.

“Some of it stuck and some of it didn’t.”

Accounting and inventory software, customer relationship management tools, cloud-based sales apps, video conferencing. It was almost all designed to make working easier or staff more productive. But that wasn't necessarily how employees experienced it.

“We saw organisations buying systems thinking the technology they were taking on would be fit for human consumption. Some was but some wasn’t.”

Of course, 2019 might have felt like the peak of the digital transformation of the workplace. As it turned out, it was only just beginning. The Covid-19 lockdown saw to that. And the problems of de-humanising technology went to a whole new level.

“Companies had to grab what they could off the shelf to get themselves up and running in the cloud,” Frear says. And often when products weren’t intuitive, or user friendly, or didn’t quite do what a company needed them to do, there was no time or resources to bring staff up to speed.

“You ended up with workplaces where employees become their own IT helpdesk.”

And that was stressful.

Frear cites a small example from his own organisation, Deloitte. The company adopted Microsoft Teams as its collaboration and conferencing platform during the time when everyone was working from home. But when people started coming back to work and wanted to collaborate with people still working at home, the video conferencing software in the company’s meeting rooms wasn’t configured to run Teams meetings.

The problem got sorted, but Frear sees it as a classic experience of rapidly-introduced technology colliding with the real world and the humans trying to operate it - and causing frustration all round.

“Technology is great, and most of the time the tech companies get our systems to 80 or 90 percent in terms of being ready for humans,” Frear says. And humans are adaptable; we make do with what they have. Even more so post-Covid, when we are so much more IT-literate than we were before.

But it’s important organisations don’t forget, now that the lockdown panic is over, that a 10-20 percent improvement in the technology would make it truly “humanised”.

“Closing that gap requires empathy and understanding.”

The job for companies now is to back-pedal a little, talk to staff at the grunty end and understand what needs to happen to adapt the technology to suit that particular business.

“When the product comes out of the box it is built to work with minimum configuration. But often it may not work optimally for your organisation because of the way your organisation is structured. Sometimes making a small change - that 10 or 20 percent that needs to be aligned with your own processes - can make everyone much more productive and reduce frustration.

“We see that all the time.”

Mining the data

Meanwhile, there’s another opportunity for companies to use the massive amounts of data generated from everyone being hooked up to cloud-based systems not just as a sales tool, but as a way to boost individual employees’ job satisfaction and performance.

Already, artificial intelligence is being used internationally to trawl through thousands of hours of, say, customer service calls and then devise training programmes to help staff better deal with customer inquiries.

“You can look at how different people perform their job and run AI over that and see who’s struggling and skill them up,” Frear says

.The relentlessness of the digital focus has taken a toll and digital fatigue is visible in many organisations. However, technology is here to stay and will only continue to advance so it’s important organisations find ways of bringing their people in to collaborate about how it can best work for them, and in turn use technology to help create a more empowered and engaged workforce.

This is about employee wellbeing, and that’s an increasingly critical part of a company’s leadership role in a post-Covid organisation, says another Deloitte partner, human capital consulting practice leader Sonia Breeze.

The 2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report lists ‘Designing work for well-being’ as the top of its five priorities for the workplace. And post-lockdown, that includes time staff spend working from home.

Wellbeing was already important pre-Covid, now it’s a must-have, Breeze says. If companies want to achieve the sort of work transformation that’s going to be necessary to thrive after the pandemic, they need to “integrate employees’ physical, mental, financial, and social health into the design of work itself,” according to the Deloitte report.

“Work that addresses the human need for quality of life can motivate people to give their best when on the job.”

Technology can help. It might be as simple as allowing a manager to check how much time a staff member is spending online - and making sure they are taking adequate breaks and not working too many hours.

Initially during lockdown, many companies were worried about their employees being side-tracked at home and not getting enough done. In many cases, globally and locally, the opposite has been the case, Breeze says.

Harvard/NYU study released in August last year found on average people were working 48 minutes longer each day during the lockdown, and the number of meetings was up 13 percent.

Deloitte monitors the hours its own people work as part of Health & Safety reporting right up to board level, Breeze says.

“We’ve had a significant focus on wellbeing. You have to make sure people’s workload is reasonable.

“I’ve heard people saying ‘I don’t have to get up and go home, so I just carry on working’.

“You have to take that very seriously.”

Back to the office

Balancing employees’ very individual needs with the best interests of the company isn’t going to be easy as the move to bring people back into the office speeds up, Breeze says. And that includes making sure technology doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions.

“People are having to work out how to accommodate different preferences and needs and balance that out across people’s teams.

“The most common thing we see is companies saying a particular team should aim to be in the office for this day, or these two or three days. So people can organise meetings for the days in the office, for example, then on non-office days they might just put their heads down and work.

”Deloitte’s ‘fly home’ days - always a part of the culture of a company used to having a proportion of employees working from client premises at any one time - are even more important now that so many people are working remotely at least some of the time, Breeze says.

The days are a way to get members of a team, or a section of the company together to celebrate, give feedback, and connect with colleagues.

Productivity and wellbeing

Another effective use of technology in a flexible work environment can be in helping a company move from an hours-at-work way of measuring productivity, to an outputs-based approach.

And the massive hike in the use and effectiveness of collaboration software - Teams, Zoom, Slack and more - has also allowed people to manage their work and their lives far more effectively - thus improving their wellbeing.

“The ability to chat and collaborate wherever people are has been hugely beneficial for a lot of employees,” Grant Frear says. Finding a supervisor or a colleague for a face-to-face meeting can be difficult and can slow projects down, particularly if teams aren’t working on the same site. Connecting online is often quicker and easier, and increasingly user-friendly technology - being able to share screens, for example, or easily bring in people from multiple locations - means getting a decision or resolution to a problem is often less stressful.

“Everyone is collaborating a lot more.”

Still, making sure even the best technology is working for your very human employees is critical, Frear says.

“The expectation that staff are always on line and available to respond is something companies need to manage.”

And meetings, oh those meetings...

“I often have back-to-back meetings, and when it’s physical it’s not so bad, you can walk between meeting rooms, stretch your legs, grab a coffee, chat to a colleague. But online you can find yourself clicking the ‘leave’ button for one meeting and immediately afterwards clicking the ‘join’ button for the next. That can be exceptionally draining and not good for mental wellbeing.

“Companies need protocols and practices. For example you might say Teams meetings are always scheduled for 50 minutes not an hour – and make that a policy or cultural norm.”

Where are we at?

Frear says companies have tended to be way more proactive with humanising technology for their customers - rigorously testing any mobile app, for example, to make sure it’s user-friendly.

But with technology used by their employees - not so much.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on CX [customer experience] but hardly any on EX [employee experience]. We rarely treat our staff with the same care and attention we do our customers.”

That needs to change, Frear says.

“Designing technology with your employees in mind is going to be increasingly important if you want highly-productive, happy and mentally healthy employees, and if you want to attract and retain the right talent.”

Covid-19 forced companies to roll out digital ways of working at speed. They took shortcuts, left employees to make it work, Frear says. Now it’s time to address the problems that caused.

Are we doing that?

“The enlightened companies are. Others are not hearing enough squeals. Our advice: don’t wait until you have a couple of years of negative responses in your annual employee satisfaction survey before you act.”

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