Digital communications; are you the problem?
23 April 2014
'It's a small world'. Something we say often when we find out we know someone who knows someone else we know. We then sometimes say, 'and getting smaller by the day'.
I'm no scientist but I don't think the earth is actually getting smaller. What is changing - almost by the hour - is our ability to connect with one another, no matter where we are in the world. You don't need a computer science degree to know how to use the technology available to us all - on smartphone, tablets, and other devices - their power is in how simple they are to use.
Take my family. We’re spread across these islands with pockets of us in London, Liverpool and Ireland. We’re using technology like never before because we have the tools but also the need - my wife and I recently had our first child and have very excited family members. To keep grandparents and aunties and uncles involved we’re using photo sharing apps, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, email and FaceTime on a daily basis. The power of this technology is making our own world seem smaller and the connections between us stronger. We've even got my Mum texting as a result!
The same is true in business. National and international boundaries are being bridged every day by the smart use of technology. The benefits of this in cost savings, efficiency, easier collaboration between colleagues and the sharing of ideas and expertise is obvious, but there are also downsides. One of these downsides has been in the news recently, with an agreement being made in France to protect workers from the intrusion of 24/7 technology-enabled working. In others words, emails and other contact from the office outside normal working hours.
This isn’t a new problem - we've no doubt all had colleagues who sent us emails and called us at all hours, including at weekends - but is made harder to tackle because of how easy it to use the technology sat in your pocket or bag. One person's flexibility and empowerment through technology - it means you can leave the office earlier than before and spend time with family but keep in touch with work at home - is someone else's work-life balance being invaded. One of the suggestions being made in France and explored in parts of corporate Germany and Sweden is to turn off the systems that allow blackberries and other devices to send emails between certain hours. This is a simple solution but surely misses the point.
The issue here isn’t the technology but how we use it. To get the most out of any IT system or piece of kit you need the right culture, approach, business processes in place and you need to communicate your expectations. Just because you can send emails at midnight doesn't mean you have to. The technology gives you lots of options, including saving your emails in draft or automatically delaying the sending until the next day. My car can drive at over 130 miles an hour (apparently) but it doesn't because I don’t allow it to - I decide how fast it goes.
To get the most of technology we need to be clear what we are using it for, what the rules of the game are and how we support people to do the right thing. This is much more about having the right culture and behaviours in your organisation than about turning to the off switch. Communicating how you expect people to behave and having the leadership of your organisation acting as role models in behaving this way is much more powerful and will say more about the kind of work place you want to have than in relying on the blunt instrument of pulling the plug. If you say you respect work-life boundaries and want a family-friendly, diverse workplace then don't blame the technology, look at the user. As I've heard IT colleagues say before this is a PICNIC situation; Problem In Chair Not In Computer.