Technology’s impact on communication and performance
There’s no shortage of information to demonstrate that technology has helped the modern workplace to become more efficient, productive and safer. However, with the rise of automation and ‘artificial intelligence’, there could be also evidence that our (over)reliance on technology is hindering us.
The advent of email in the workplace has allowed workers to respond to communications from colleagues almost instantaneously whether they be down the hall or on another continent. Companies are also utilizing apps such as WhatsApp improve the exchange of information in many formats quickly and cheaply.
Whilst having fast response times for business is great, there can be a toll for employees who feel they are never able to truly switch off and stop thinking about work. For example, a lot of chat messenger apps such as WhatsApp are primarily used for personal communication. When we start using the same apps for professional purposes, people may look at their phone in their leisure time expecting to engage with a friend and have their thoughts drawn back to work. It can also blur the lines between business and personal conversation which carries its own risks, for example, the casual nature of these apps may encourage “water cooler chat” that could potentially be dangerous for both one’s career and company. Furthermore, constant notifications are distracting and have been proven to harm productivity levels. Workers may wish to opt out of these disruptive groups but risk missing out on vital information that they need to do their job effectively.
Another issue is a lack of empathy or thought for how your recipient may receive your email. Unless both parties know each other very well it is easy to misconstrue the tone or intention of an email with destructive consequences. Leadership and People Management Specialist Karen Gately has stated that users are often less rational when communicating online due to lack of face-to-face contact and not being able to read emotional responses in text.
“People will often say things that they otherwise wouldn’t and they’ll say things in ways that they might not choose to say them if they were actually sitting in front of the person having the interaction”.
An example could be a client who would send aggressive-sounding emails, very frequently. Not only would the client be unaware that their constant emails could disrupt productivity, the recipient could become agitated, the relationship would be strained and the process would become harder as a result.
Technology: Does it improve or interrupt?
KPIs can be used to keep track of what and what isn’t working – the majority of businesses use them to make sure they are on track to achieve their goals. But in the digital age do we sometimes take this too far?
One famous example is Amazon and its use of tracking to monitor whether its employees were meeting their targets. The rigid parameters didn’t take in to account inevitable human error which has led to low morale and high turnover. The ecommerce monolith has also considered the use of wristband trackers worn on each arm to track the location of workers and the products they handle.
CEO Kate Bischoff has warned that constant monitoring could “impact employee anxiety, morale and overall work culture.”
The problem with heavy performance-incentivized metrics like the ones at Amazon is, whilst they’re not impossible to achieve, it is a form of micromanagement. It doesn’t allow for error or time to think and evaluate. It becomes a case of do and succeed, or don’t do and fail.
You could also argue that the main problem is that too many people treat KPIs as a non-specific target, rather than a measurement. For example, let’s say a pen manufacturing company used a KPI as a target for its manufacturing facilities’ productivity levels, evaluating the success rate by the amount of pens it makes. So whilst it’s great one facility are producing a lot of pens, the majority of those could be red, which could be due to red ink being faster and cheaper to produce. Although, most consumers usually buy black or blue.
Because the KPI was not specific in what it wanted to achieve, it over-delivered in one area and under-delivered in another.
What can be done?
What companies need to identify are the communication methods and technologies that work best for them. Whilst WhatsApp may work for a young start-up, it may not be suitable for a large corporate company. Depending on company size and the number of employees, there may be less need to always utilize internal email channels and to include video conference calls to cover key issues with the company. For example a weekly conference call to keep up with everyone is more effective than a newsletter, as it prompts colleagues to engage and respond.
These communication methods should also be investigated and potentially utilized to build rapport with clients and new business prospects. Gately also states that face-to-face communication plays a vital role in “helping organisations to get better at the way they not only share information but the way they explore ideas, the way the make decisions and the way they build relationships”.
KPIs need to be specific in what they’re aiming to track. The issue is when the metric in mind is usually too general i.e. number of calls. This potentially leads to employee “gaming” their KPI’s without actually doing what their task needs.
When they’re used as targets, not only do they miss the big picture, they also may inhibit performance improvement.
It’s also good to remember that targets based on a no-error model is detrimental to progress, as it doesn’t address potential issues and creates a culture of elimination rather than encouragement. Your employees will feel more insecure, less likely to take calculated risks and assess situations if progress is based on quantity rather than quality.
Going back to the example of the pen manufacturing company. The KPI ‘target’ put pressure on the manufacturing facility to generate results. Since there was no specific goal other than “produce X amount”, the facility generated a lot of red pens rather than the more preferred black or blue because it was the fastest and cheapest option to fill a quota.
Simply put, a clear business goal should be measured by KPIs, not dictated or even held hostage by them. Employees are less able to abuse indicators with specific functions. Rather than put pressure on employees, KPI’s act as an underlying guideline to ensure delivery of the objective is smooth and can be adapted when needed.