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Putting the humanity back into tech - a growing enterprise challenge that impacts on us all

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett April 22, 2024
Summary:
Advanced systems, such as AI, have been shown to damage employee wellbeing. Time to take action.

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Although advanced technologies, such as AI, may have a negative impact on employees’ quality of life today, this situation is not a foregone conclusion, experts believe.

A recent report from the Institute for the Future of Work indicated that the more people interacted with advanced technologies, which also include machine learning, wearables and robotics, the more their quality of life suffers. But working with older technology, such as laptops, tablets, smartphones and real-time messaging tools, has the opposite effect.

Alessandra La Via is Founder of digital culture consultancy Live More Offline. What surprises her most about the findings was that tools, such as smartphones, were found to boost people’s quality of life:

A number of studies have shown that tools, such as video and email, which are mediated by laptops and the like, increase workplace stress. So, what it demonstrates is that the reality is more nuanced and complicated and comes down to how we use digital systems rather than whether we should use them.

As for the report’s conclusions on advanced technologies, Olivia Gambelin, an AI Ethicist and Author of Responsible AI, agrees that they can have a negative impact. Employers introducing wearables for employee tracking and monitoring purposes are a prime example, she says. 

This approach has a “hugely detrimental” impact on wellbeing as people often feel such devices are intrusive and that their privacy has been invaded. It also generates concern over what their personal data will be used for and what the implications will be further down the line. 

In relation to AI specifically though, it is employee fears of being replaced that are most common. Gambelin explains:

AI tends to take a negative toll because of job security issues and people‘s fear of losing them. Even if AI isn’t being introduced – and its adoption is far lower than generally portrayed, with many companies hesitant in adopting enterprise-wide use cases – there’s a ‘what if’ fear, which is widespread. 

Taking a people-centric approach to tech

Another important consideration here is how organizations go about rolling the technology out within the business:

If AI is introduced in a way that the person using it doesn’t feel empowered to make better decisions or have more control over their work, it’ll take its toll. If it’s put out there as a ‘be all and end all’, omnipotent tool, it’ll undermine people and their sense of autonomy and inevitably have an impact on wellbeing.

Put another way, if employers are to bring their employees along with them, it is vital to adopt a people-centric approach, says Ram Srinivasan. Managing Director of Consulting for Work Dynamics at professional services firm JLL, he points out:

What’s lost in some of the discussion around these technologies, especially AI, is that this isn’t about technology for technology’s sake but for the sake of people. Solutions need to be human by design and human-led. The best implementations we’ve seen, where the most value has been derived, is where organizations have taken this approach and employee wellbeing has been top of the executive agenda. But in my view, it’s often about technology looking for a problem, which generates friction-creating issues that in turn lead to alienation and stress. 

La Via agrees:

It fundamentally keeps coming back to the question of what’s in humans’ best interests. So, it’s necessary to take the time to think about it and design intentionally. This means establishing what technology you want to build and why, and how you want people to interact with it. It’s also about understanding the whole impact on people of each new technology that’s brought in. So, look at wellbeing, performance, inclusion, and one that’s often forgotten about, loneliness.

But it is not just technology in and of itself that is causing problems, Srinivasan believes. It is also the pace of wider organizational and societal change, which can lead to “cognitive overload”. 

Another challenge, he points out, is that many employers are inevitably inventing the rules around implementing and using advanced technologies as they go along. He describes this phenomenon as “learning to fly the ‘plane as you’re flying it”, which can feel very unsettling for employees.

How to support employee wellbeing

The situation is also not helped by a general lack of employee knowledge about how to use such technology effectively, points out Tess Buckley. She is Program Manager for Digital Ethics and AI Safety at trade association, techUK:

Employees don’t necessarily have the skills to use this technology in a positive way. So, I think the solution is skills development, training and retraining – essentially, a process of lifelong learning.

Possible approaches here include creating sandboxes for voluntary, hands-on, experiential learning in designated use cases. Well-communicated guidelines for day-to-day usage are also vital. The same is true of providing clarity over how new technologies will be integrated into workflows and what the resultant impacts on employees will be.

Also helpful is the traditional discipline of creating well-thought through pilot projects supported by champions, says Lucia Bucci. She is Division Vice President for HR at payroll and HR software provider, ADP. Nay-sayers should also be included at a later point in the process to find gaps and holes. Bucci explains:

It may take time, but it offers the space to test things and let people express their concerns. And once you get critical mass, you can move forward.

Ultimately though, says Gambelin, it boils down to employers putting an holistic strategy in place rather than “just throwing spaghetti at the wall”:

Yes, you need a good use case that will generate a good return on investment. But you also need to implement it in a way that will help the company and its people flourish. There are three basic pillars: people, process and technology. But the most critical of these is people, followed by process. If people aren’t aware of what’s happening or you don’t take care of how they feel, it doesn’t matter what technology you implement or how you build things. It’ll crumble as people are the foundation. So, you need to educate, motivate and communicate with them to ensure they have the right skillsets and incentives and that they’re motivated in the right direction.

My take

I, like Gambelin, believe that as more of these advanced technologies start to make their presence felt, we are starting to see a (very necessary) “desire for more humanity in tech”. 

It’s not so much a tech backlash as a growing awareness that people simply have to be taken into consideration if we want this stuff to work in a sustainable way. This means treating individuals with consideration, dignity and respect rather than simply as recipients of tech industry beneficence, or even worse, as disposable commodities.

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