The 20 employees at San Francisco's 4charity Inc. are on their computers eight hours or more a day, handling charitable-giving transactions online for nonprofits and corporate donors. "We're a totally virtual office," says Tracey Pettengill, 31, CEO of the 3-year-old company, whose sales will reach $1 million this year. "No one could come in to the office, and we'd be just as efficient."
But efficiency can lead to isolation and frustration. Pettengill finds herself telling her employees to solve problems face to face instead of hiding behind e-mail and instant messaging. Boredom from technology use has reared its ugly head, too: An employee who handles online sales was burning out last spring and asked for more variety and excitement in her job. "There's absolutely zero human interaction," Pettengill says. "It's a rote process over and over again." To solve the problem, Pettengill gave the employee some outbound sales calls and other projects other than filling out the same online form all day. It's helped the employee stay motivated.
Pettengill's dilemma is common. With employees instant messaging and e-mailing each other instead of hoofing it across the cube farm-and customers doing business online-it's getting harder to find "that happy balance between using technology and having personal interaction," Pettengill says. "It's a communication challenge."
While the efficient workplace promised by technology is very seductive, it comes with all kinds of trade-offs for employees. Besides a sense of isolation and frustration, they can feel distracted and pressured to keep up. Many employees are reacting negatively to technology, says Larry Rosen, a psychologist in Carlsbad, California, and author of the book Technostress (John Wiley). "We're in a continual state of overload," he says. The eventual result: stress and burnout.
At the same time, employees are expected to manage more of their work experience in cyberspace, says Nicole Kelly, a principal and communication consultant in Pittsburgh for HR consulting firm Buck Consultants. Areas that used to be the domain of highly trained experts-health care and 401(k) programs, for example-can be controlled by employees at their desktops.
Employers, meanwhile, are struggling to implement technology in a way that works for employees. Too often, small businesses approach technology purely from an IT point of view, Kelly says, expecting employees to adapt to technology rather than the other way around. But there's a point at which technology becomes counterproductive when you throw human nature into the mix. "Employers have gotten over the excitement of having [technology]," Kelly says. "Now we've got to make it work for us."
That starts by looking beyond the benefits of technology. Anticipating the negative effects on your staff in four key areas-stress, frustration, boredom and isolation-will help you tackle problems before they become issues. For example, if you want employees to manage their own 401(k)s online, how will you deal with the stress and frustration that comes with mastering the process? What will it take for employees to adapt? How will you fill the communication void some employees feel? Implement technology without answering these questions, and you could be creating more problems than solutions.
The easiest way to relieve the burden of technology is to make employees a part of the process. Start a technology committee that includes employees who would use new technology, from entry-level to top-level, tech-savvy to tech-impaired. This a good way to discover whether a new technology will cause isolation or boredom, and what you can do about it.
"You'll be surprised how well employees can articulate their needs when you give them a forum," Kelly says. "Some good ideas can spring up."
Does This Compute?
Technology is changing much faster than we are, and like Pettengill, you may have some employees who are burning out from repetitive computer tasks that don't let them solve problems or have meaningful interactions with customers.
Los Angeles psychologist Lilli Friedland suggests giving employees in these types of jobs at least one project every day that isn't computer-based. Like Pettengill, you can update a job description to include new offline tasks. Weekly brainstorming sessions, opportunities for collaboration with co-workers and in-person feedback can do wonders, too. In today's tech-driven workplaces, you'll have to work hard to provide a strong social support system, Friedland says. But in return, you'll get increased productivity and a lower turnover rate.
The challenge for employers over this decade will be striking a balance between technology and human nature. Pettengill still makes a point of having in-person meetings that could just as easily be done by e-mail. "It's important to get together to discuss what's going on," she says. "People need diversity and excitement to stay motivated."
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