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Are IT and communications tools killing morale and productivity?

Every day developments in technology are opening up new communications methods and ways of working. In this situation, it is vital that IT departments understand fully the nature of the various communications media, as well as the effects their use can have on staff cohesion, productivity and turnover.

In a study last year, Jabra found that workers were using technology to achieve flexible working goals to positive ends, much as was expected. However, a piece of research we commissioned in 2013 painted a picture that was, in many ways, less optimistic than 12 months prior. It explored UK workers’ changing relationship with their workplace IT and communication tools. The result is an up-to-date, helicopter view of:

  • The communications tools UK workers use in 2013
  • Whether UK workers are achieving the work-life balance they’re looking for
  • The effect communications technology is having on workers’ personal wellbeing
  • How employers, IT managers, HR, etc. can use this knowledge to ensure that their workers are happy and productive

We found that while transformation in the workplace is definitely occurring in 2013, (and bringing positive benefits), in many ways the new technology is creating entirely new issues. Surveyed workers shared some very interesting views regarding the availability of appropriate devices, their work-life balance, their personal wellbeing and their trust of other workers. The answers also suggested some very telling things about the overall quality of modern workplace interactions.

Workers’ attitudes one year ago

Many of these questions were touched in an earlier study in 2012 entitled “GenM: Defining the Workforce of Tomorrow”. This study revealed a series of attitudes to work that transcended demographics and job function and united an entire generation of workers, which, with its increasingly ‘work anywhere, anytime’ attitude, was dubbed ‘Generation Mobile’.

GenM, the study revealed, sees multi-tasking as a way of life, whether at home or at work. It regards work-life balance as a bigger priority than work fulfillment and is willing to work beyond traditional office hours to achieve it. 43 per cent felt that being able to work at home more often would make them more productive.

Interestingly, at the time, 1 in 5 members of GenM were dissatisfied with the ICT tools available to them at work. An increasing number (28 per cent) were taking matters into their own hands by using their own devices at work for work purposes. Tomorrow’s workforce would not rely on email and desk-phones, but would favour more immediate, collaborative, methods of communication such as IM and social media. It seemed pretty clear that GenM were spearheading the consumerisation of IT within the workplace, leading to a conception of work as an ‘activity’ rather than a ‘place’.

Understanding UK workers’ use of devices and tools

In the more recent 2013 study, (“GenM 2013: One Year On”), we talked to 1,000 UK workers, employed on a full or part-time basis by an ‘office-based company’. 72 per cent worked in an office, 12 per cent from home, 9 per cent in a call centre/telemarketing/customer services environment and 4 per cent worked ‘on the move’. These workers revealed a variety of fascinating things regarding their use of, and attitude towards, the ICT productivity tools made available to them at work; findings that IT departments need to understand when provisioning for their departments.

It was immediately clear that email and desk-phones were level-pegging as the most popular forms of communication in the workplace, with 63 per cent of respondents using each regularly for work. No surprise perhaps; until you examined just how far behind other forms of communication were…

Various sources have suggested that, in the modern day and age, perhaps telephone and voice communications are becoming increasingly irrelevant in favour of textual means of communication such as email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. But barely 4 per cent of UK workers claim to use Twitter for work purposes. ‘Other social media networks’ such as Facebook also only see around 4 per cent use in the workplace. Clearly the use of social media in a professional context isn’t taking off in the stratospheric manner that had been predicted. Other forms of communication are, comparatively, ‘bumping along the bottom’ as well.

Also, with the increasing use of textual communications, there seems to be an emerging disconnect in the perceived value of textual and verbal communications amongst workers. While just one in three agree that communication via phone is still a very effective means of communication, the vast majority of workers (70 per cent) agree, when asked more specifically, that speaking to colleagues over the phone or via videoconferencing helps them to feel significantly more connected to each other.

Having the right tools for the right job is a major factor in employee productivity and satisfaction and is often a reason cited by employees for leaving a company. ITDMs should be alarmed by the further finding that, while in 2012 only one in five workers thought they did not have the right IT and Communications tools to get their jobs done, in 2013 only 40 per cent feel they have the right tools. This trend is most pronounced amongst Contact Centre staff, of whom only 26 per cent feel they had the tools they needed. All of which hardly makes it seem surprising that, overall, 41 per cent of workers claim they would consider switching jobs if they were given poor-quality tools, (and 18 per cent said they would leave if not allowed to use their own communications devices for work).

These numbers re-highlight the importance, both in terms of productivity and staff retention, of something many IT departments will already be getting to grips with in the modern workplace; that it is vital to actively enter into a dialogue with employees regarding the equipment they feel they require.

BYOD and the growth of consumerisation of IT has led to more tech-savvy workers and has changed expectations to the point that staff feel it is increasingly important that they can tailor their in-work IT experience to some degree. IT departments should ideally conduct feedback sessions and surveys to ensure staff feel bought-into IT decisions and to determine whether implementing a BYOD/CYOD scheme will make a difference to overall productivity and job satisfaction. Employees need to see IT as a strategic resource rather than a barrier to technology innovation.

Are UK workers achieving a decent work-life balance and can IT do anything to help?

Of course, the IT department’s responsibilities in ensuring a happy and productive workforce don’t end at providing the right tools within the office. The IT department has to provide the right tools to enable workers to get their tasks done on time and to ensure a decent work-life balance.

UK workers place even more emphasis on achieving a work-life balance in 2013 than they did in 2012: While in 2012 27 per cent claimed that a work-life balance was their most important career priority, now 54 per cent claim that a good work-life balance is more important than a pay rise. Yet ironically 40 per cent of people regularly check email outside of work hours, (up significantly from 19 per cent in 2012), and nearly one in five workers, (18 per cent) say they have a poor work-life balance.

IT departments are clearly central to enabling flexible working, yet the flexible working revolution has definitely not materialised yet: 74 per cent of employees feel that their employer does not offer a flexible working policy. Yet at the same time there is clearly a distinct hunger for such strategies. 24 per cent want to work from home more often and one in four would consider changing jobs due to lack of flexible working options. A further 15 per cent would only take a new job if it was remote or home-based.

Clearly these findings have a variety of implications for IT departments and each individual ITDM will need to figure out the best ways of implementing flexible working schemes according to the nature of their business and in conjunction with other managers. These are likely to require the implementation of decent VPNs, VoIP/UC systems, multiuse headsets, the implementation of tighter remote-working security policies, etc....

It’s clear that, overall, flexible working policies are going to feature more and more as a desirable element of a job if personnel continue to demand it and it is therefore important that IT departments help the organisation spearhead this working practice in order to attract and retain the best staff.

Workers' mental and emotional wellbeing in the modern work environment

A worker’s mental and emotional state can have a profound effect on the quality and volume of their work, and add to the overall mood of a company. However, our findings in this area were far from ideal and are quite surprising. A massive 75 per cent of the UK workers surveyed admit to experiencing some form of significant emotional or interpersonal issue at work: one third feel undervalued, a further one in three suffers from poor relationships at work and one in five feel isolated from their coworkers. Clearly there are some real issues in the UK workplace.

Call centre staff were by far the unhappiest group, with a huge 81 per cent indicating some emotional or interpersonal issue. 35 per cent experience poor interpersonal relationships at work and 22 per cent experience isolation from co-workers. Most worryingly though, is that contact centre staff also experienced almost twice the average level of breakdowns in relationships at home due to work, (21 per cent vs an average of 12 per cent).

Additional findings include the discovery that 29 per cent of workers regularly feel ‘anxiety or stress’, and 24 per cent regularly suffer from exhaustion.

So what are we doing wrong?

The promise of modern IT and communications technology was that it would bring us closer together and allow us to communicate more readily and easily. However, in allowing workers to divert more and more time towards communicating via text-based communications media, perhaps ICT is actually contributing in part to the problem: It seems that workers are spending more time avoiding ‘quality’ interactions with other human beings; (‘quality interactions here being anything that allows ‘emotive communication’: This would make face-to-face interaction the best form of communication, followed by either video-conferencing or straight-verbal communications, (whether via softphone, mobile or desk-phone). Non-verbal communications would follow in a distant third place).

The changing nature of communications media can, at times, reduce even a well-populated office to a quiet hum of typing. It’s a trend I see all-too-often in workplaces and will, of course, be amplified in the case of remote workers: It seems entirely possible that, in facilitating a more diverse range of communications methods, ICT is in places, either isolating geographically-local staff or enabling working patterns where staff are geographically dispersed and therefore have less meaningful communication interaction.

Line managers can compensate for these trends by facilitating more ‘quality’ interaction, (through quarterly HR calls, increased use of video-conferencing, face-to-face team meetings/projects/events, etc.). As a traditional ‘facilitator’, however, the role of the ITDM in directing these policies is less clear, though the IT department can certainly help to facilitate policies and procedure.

Rather than merely creating the means by which workers can work remotely, IT departments could work with line managers in a more ‘joined up’ way: Are remote working systems leading to longer hours overall? Is facilitation of more out-of-hours communication with staff a stressor and if so, is it one that is of net benefit to the company? Is the trend towards working and communicating more outside of office hours one that can be compensated for via updated policy?

The need to ask such broad, cross-disciplinary questions and the blurring of the distinctions between ‘HR’, ‘line manager’ and ‘IT enabler’ management roles in reaction to such questions, will already be familiar to many modern ITDMs.

Growing mistrust and division in the workplace

One of the most interesting and unexpected findings was that, while IT departments have gone a long way to facilitating successful home and flexible working, this has not necessarily always been to the benefit of home workers, or their careers.

55 per cent of all workers surveyed think that home working breeds mistrust. 13 per cent point out a perception that remote workers do not work as hard as office-based workers, 11 per cent think that remote workers are subject to negative gossip from their co-workers and 31 per cent feel that home workers may undertake a degree of personal tasks when working from home. Overall, just 14 per cent said that remote working is widely accepted in their organisation and perceived as productive. And while home workers rank as by-far the most contented group, they too recognise that these negative perceptions exist.

It seems that home workers’ physical distance from the rest of the working population, enabled by the ever-more-sophisticated ICT that enables home-working setups, breeds mistrust amongst the wider workforce.

There’s a lot that IT departments can do to alleviate the trend of home worker alienation. The very technology that workers use to work from home can facilitate much higher-quality communication with their peers, if used properly. In lieu of regular team meetings and face-to-face group bonding, (which is generally always the best workplace communications option for fostering ‘team spirit’), IT departments fan facilitate and encourage the use of conference calls and video calls/Google hangouts. Furthermore, IT departments can encourage remote workers to sign in to ‘presence’ indicators, allowing teams to see when they are online, helping to alleviate the impression that they might be undertaking non-work-related-tasks away from their laptop.

While it’s true that face-to-face is usually the best form of interaction, with geographically dispersed workers it’s not always practical. In these situations IT departments can reliably fall back on the visual and aural emotive qualities of the videoconference and the phone call: Workers can be encouraged into these communication patterns by giving them high-quality headsets, allowing them to multitask while they talk and delivering training via the relevant audio-visual communications tools.

Where do we go from here?

Are IT decision makers provisioning in the right way? Perhaps more joined-up thinking needs to occur between IT departments and other layers of management. After all, how workers feel in the ‘new working environment’ is not just down to the technology that enables it.

In many ways the workplace has changed beyond all recognition compared to years gone past. Now, we have working options that would have seemed, on the face of it, utopian to previous generations of workers. IT and communications equipment now offers us the chance to work in a dizzying array of new ways and to lead to real improvements in our day-to-day experience of work. So why, in reality, does it not seem to be working this way? We seem some way short of the ‘flexible working nirvana’ GenM are looking for.

Our research has proven beyond a doubt that having good communications tools is not the same as having good communications. The danger is that, instead of breaking down the barriers to interpersonal communication on which a healthy business environment thrives, new communications media are, without the proper understanding and policies from the IT department, in danger of simply raising new challenges, stresses and new barriers between us.

While this report may appear to paint a bleak picture, all of the issues outlined are very fixable, given the right workplace policies. Ultimately they spring not so much from anything innate to the IT and communications solutions facilitating flexible working, but from people’s reactions to them.

Today’s hyper-connected world, ironically, raises far more opportunities for estrangement, isolation and division than more ‘traditional’ methods of communication. In terms of encouraging cost savings, productivity benefits, talent retention and a happier and more cohesive workforce, businesses need to do all they can to implement policies, from the HR department to IT, that encourage users to interact in-person and where this is not practical, to ensure that their IT tools are used to promote ‘real’, ‘high-quality’ visual and verbal communications, whether that be by voice or video means.

Andrew Doyle is the Managing Director of Jabra Business Solutions for UK & Ireland

Image credit: Infocux Technologies