The last few years I have been living in the North-East of Brazil, and recently, being tired of sweeping the floor on a daily basis, I bought a vacuum cleaner.
After showing it enthusiastically to both my boyfriend and my cleaner, thinking they would share my excitement, I noticed something interesting. Both of them said they were going to first sweep the floor with the broom, and after that they would use the vacuum cleaner ‘for extra cleaning’.
Being from the Netherlands where brooms are for outside and vacuum cleaners for inside, this surprised me.
In fact, my boyfriend just stopped me from using the vacuum cleaner, telling me he would sweep the floor first because that’s ‘quicker and more effective’.
While watching him sweeping the floor (HA!), I started thinking of how this relates to the way we humans adapt to new technology in our working environment.
What I have noticed over the years is that we are, in general, way slower to adapt than we think.
In other words, we OVERESTIMATE our ability to adapt to new technology.
Okay, let’s use the time I saved on not vacuum cleaning today on diving into this, shall we?
We were ‘Pandemic Ready’
In March 2020, we were suddenly forced to work in a distributed way on a global scale because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And the good news was that all the technology we needed to do so successfully already existed.
In terms of technology, we were totally ‘pandemic ready’.
We are not talking about just video conferencing here, we are talking about a full set of tech tools and solutions that allow us to communicate, collaborate, engage, build culture and organize workspaces in a fully virtual, distributed and a-synchronous setup.
However, with the exception of the few hundred fully-distributed start-ups and scale-ups around the world, that technology was hardly being used, let alone leveraged, to move to a more remote set-up for most organizations.
Companies mainly kept on operating like most of that technology did not exist with, for example, meetings being face-2-face by default and video conferencing mainly used for long-distance communication.
And although the pandemic brought a drastic change in the eyes of many people, if we look at all the tech that is out there, we could argue it was not drastic enough and this tech could be the key for companies truly moving forward.
The Tech Gap
When the pandemic hit, companies promptly moved every meeting to Zoom or Teams, and created a few more meetings trying to compensate for the in-office spontaneous one-on-ones and the water cooler chitchat that is, in the current paradigm at least, viewed as essential for engagement and culture.
Not only were we moving to a large number of zoom meetings and adding more as we went along, but people were also working longer hours. Developments leading to a new phenomenon: Zoom fatigue, followed by feelings of overwhelm and increased burn-outs.
In a way, by trying to replace existing ‘alongside’ working structures with an online environment without changing the underlying paradigms, cultures and processes, we worsened our workplace.
Many call this ‘the downside of remote working’.
However, what companies collectively failed to do, was leverage the existing technology in a way that allowed them to improve collaboration, communication, and engagement.
There is still a large gap in what is available in terms of tech and the possibilities for a new world of work and how people and companies have been adapting to it.
We are sitting on all this technology and we just don’t know how to use it.
With the increased need of employees to keep on working remotely for at least some of the time, companies are now forced to further adapt and create sustainable human-centered workplaces that support new ways of working in a more permanent way.
To do so effectively we need to understand it’s not just about ‘remote’ and implementing some new tech solutions, but we need to make fundamental changes in the way we approach work at the same time.
When Email First Got Introduced
So let’s travel back in time to the early nineties. I had a summer job as a secretary for the management team of a large insurance company which was part of a huge banking concern.
This was when email and the internet just got introduced on a large scale in organizations and most people, especially admins and secretaries, were just starting using email for correspondence.
However, the directors in the management team I worked for, did not.
We might find that strange now, but you will have to understand that computers were seen as a new kind of typewriter, and typewriters were for secretaries and bookkeepers, not for higher management.
So no one in the management team had a computer or would use email.
Also, email was introduced but paper workstreams and correspondence were not replaced overnight, so emails were at added on top of the existing workflows.
In fact, it surprises me and I find it at least slightly annoying and quite concerning that many companies (such as indeed, insurance companies) still feel the need to send correspondence on paper without even feeling the slightest embarrassed.
C’mon people. It has been 30 years.
So how did that look in practice:
CEO A would dictate an email to his secretary, who would send it to the secretary of CEO B, who would print the email and put it together with the other correspondence on the desk of CEO B.
Who would write his answer on the printed email, give it back to secretary B, who would FAX the printed email to secretary A, who would hand this fax to CEO A.
After which, this process started over again.
It’s not what we’d call effective use of new technology, right?
We might even laugh about this now, but let’s face it. Are we really doing that much better? In 30 years from now, will readers laugh about the way we are now integrating new technology in old ways of working?
But what did we ACTUALLY see in those early days of the internet?
Clearly, we see people struggling to truly understand and leverage the possibilities of new tech while trying to integrate this in the most effective way in existing structures, mindsets, behaviors, and workflows.
Sounds familiar, right?
It took a long time for responsibilities for correspondence to shift from secretary to CEO, to replace (most) paper correspondence with digital information streams and create new workflows.
And the effective use of email in the beginning was for sure hindered by another powerful force: CEO’s holding on to their status-symbols (at that time: a large mahogany desk, a fountain pen, and the secretary herself!).
The vintage notebooks
Years later I was as HR interim director responsible for restructuring and downsizing an HR department. While reviewing the paperwork in the office, I found two vintage notebooks, you know the marble printed with the yellow tape on the sides? From the sixties and seventies?
The HR assistant told me they were keeping track of new hires and exits in these books.
I started flipping through the notebooks till the first entry, which was from 1976 – a series of HR assistants since then just continued the existing workflows, even when they had become totally obsolete because of the implementation of HR systems around 15 years before.
And when I pointed this out, I even met a lot of resistance of letting go of the old ways, the HR team insisting this registration was a crucial part of their workstreams.
People who are expected to use the technology should be able to trust it and understand its functions. Before that, they need to have an understanding of why things need to be done, what the point is of all functions, tasks and responsibilities of their own role.
Quadrupling the workload
There was another HR department that hired me to solve some problems. There had been a lot of conflict in the team, leading to an HR assistant leaving and another one being burn-out for over a year, all because of ‘the high workload’.
Looking deeper into this, I found the company had moved to a new HR / Payroll system one year before. However, processes were not adjusted and there was a bunch of manual processes still in place. All of them based on older workstreams, and / or compensating for a lack of understanding of the processes and the technology that was supposed to support it.
In this case, technology was not replacing old workstreams and reducing workload, but leading to added manual work instead of trusting and using the IT system as it was intended.
Over the years, the HR admins almost quadrupled their own workload by adding new manual tasks every time a new IT tool was introduced, leading to very high costs for the organization (and a huge impact on the well-being of the HR admins) before that got solved.
Technology and Rethinking work
I have many more of these examples up my sleeve, as I am sure you do to.
And remember when most people were still printing the emails they received? That’s not that long ago.
There is a wonderful new set of (HR) tech and tools out there, that can really help us forward toward creating more sustainable and human-centered organizations.
Solutions that can help us reduce meetings or make them more fun and more effective, that help create engagement, build culture, manage employee performance, and much more.
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But to truly move forward to a new kind of organization, we should not just rely on tools. We need to rethink work and support our organizations with adapting and leveraging these new solutions.
We need to be aware of all underlying issues that can have a counter-effect and solve them as good as we can.
From status-driven behavior, persistent old workflows, belief systems, lack of understanding of tasks and what they contribute to, low tech ability – there is a lot that can create a workplace where we not just double, but triple, or even quadruple the workload after implementing even the best tech solution out there.
A sustainable Future
As HR or People Leaders, we need to be aware that being able to adjust to new technology has become a critical skill.
We need to develop these skills in our organizations, and select on this while recruiting for new staff. Failing to do so, can become a real threat for your organization’s future.
When we look at technology, we need to take into account that tech will affect work, responsibilities, and people’s influence in the organization, and also the psychological contract between organization and employee. This can lead to a decreased willingness or even resistance to leveraging technology.
Tech as a driver for change
And as well as people overestimating their ability to adjust to technology, we might also underestimate how tech can be a driver for organizational change.
Just think about the iPhone – we never knew we needed it when we did not have it, but the smartphone has changed our lives drastically.
There might be a tech solution for a problem you don’t even know you have and that will over the next decade drive significant change in the way you work.
Why should we adapt to technology?
This brings us to the next point: Why should we want to change and adapt to new technology?
After all, we don’t have a real pain point to solve, and we are just fine as we are. Right?
Just because there is a bunch of technology on the market, it doesn’t mean we need to use it and start changing all our working structures, policies, management styles and cultures?
Here are a few arguments you might want to bring back to your organization in case that is the sentiment.
1) Almost every company out there is moving to a new working structure that involves people spending less time side-by-side in the office. There are challenges around these new structures, and to solve them we will need to both rethink work and successfully implement new technology to support the new structures.
2) No organization is an island. Just like there were some people who did not really want a mobile phone when they first came out (that includes me, by the way), there will be a point your organization simply can’t stay behind.
3) Your organizational strategy will most likely benefit hugely from changing working structures while adapting to new technology. Your company will become more effective, more agile, be able to attract and retain talent from around the world, and will become more inclusive, diverse and innovative faster.
4) Being proactive and molding the use of technology, even in a quite radical way, allows us to innovate for us rather than be dictated to by the way that customers or competitors choose to adopt the technology.
On a last note
Being able to adapt to and leverage new technology is a critical skill for both organizations and individuals, especially in this tech-driven, global new world of work.
Simply it’s no longer possible to adjust at the same pace as we adjusted to the introduction of email – we will need to be ahead of the curve and embrace and leverage technology and drive the organizational change that comes with it.
With startups, and a new generation of employees that are jumping on new technology (or even developing it!) and leveraging it to the max, other organizations have to follow their lead – and make sure they do it right.