Why technology may lead to greater isolation in the workplace

Full implementation of AI may be further away than we think, but the planning starts now, say experts

New technology may well have created fewer physically demanding jobs, but its impact on the mental wellbeing of employees is still ‘up for grabs’, delegates at an Acas panel discussion heard last week.

Using Acas’s latest research paper, Mind Over Machines: New technology and employment relations, as a starting point, experts – including Mark Wilson, senior HR leader at Jaguar Land Rover, and Professor Leslie Willcocks from the London School of Economics – shared their views on how the introduction of new technology can affect the nature of work on offer and employee wellbeing.

Here are five key takeouts from the session:

  1. Engage with employees during change

    The use of ‘big brother’ technology, such as trackers for delivery drivers or warehouse delivery packers – which detail the routes employees should follow and how long jobs should take them – can lead to a perceived loss of employee discretion, said Gill Dix, head of strategy at Acas. Organisations need to focus on well-designed jobs, because technology “has the potential to greatly undermine workers’ autonomy and engagement if not handled carefully”, which is likely to impact on productivity levels, she said.

    It is important to work with employees through any period of change where their jobs are affected, and ensure wellbeing is addressed “through a robust strategy”, said Wilson. The introduction of automation to Jaguar Land Rover plants has meant employees have had to adapt, he said.

    “From a wellbeing perspective, the nature of the work has definitely changed. It is physically lighter and a lot more of the work is done in isolation,” said Wilson.

    “We are now looking at different ways we can engage with that particular work group. It’s about considering what experience we want our workers to have in the workplace and how we balance that with technology.”

  2. Consider the pace of change

    Adapting to changing technology in the workplace is understandably harder than at home, said Dix, because of the fact the pace of the shift at work is often faster than the corresponding improvements in management or working practices. “New technology lands in a complex environment of work, against a backdrop of culture and relationships in the workplace,” she said.

  3. Ethics are needed in the world of technology

    The introduction of an ethical code could be beneficial when it comes to the use of technology for ‘brain work’, to guard against discrimination in recruitment or other areas of operations. “Algorithms can help organisations treat employees fairly, but it all depends on who is setting the parameters of the algorithms,” said Dix.

    Willcocks said he believed a significant amount of discrimination was possible in ‘invisible tech’ – because it is designed by humans. “We need more transparency on this,” he said. “Could we have an ethics code that asks how we arrived at the algorithm and clarify what it is telling us, could it be made auditable and could we check for fairness?”

  4. Technology will take some years to reach its potential

    The adoption of robotic process automation is actually being embraced by employees in a largely positive way, “which is quite the reverse of what we are reading in the headlines”, said Willcocks.

    “What most people get worried about is cognitive automation, hyped up as artificial intelligence,” he said, adding that the latest thinking is that the deployment of this technology is going to take a lot longer than previously anticipated: “A study done by McKinsey on all previous technologies, including e-business, found that for a major technology to get to 90 per cent of its potential use it takes between eight and 25 years.

    “There is an awful lot of work left for humans to do. We carried out our own study and found that of 18 human capabilities used at work, seven could be automatable in the next eight years, but 11 couldn’t easily be automated within the next 35 years.”

  5. Don’t forget the human aspect

    Organisations need to consider how the adoption of new technology, and working practices when using that technology, will affect employees from every angle.

    Whittington Health NHS Trust decided to roll out the use of iPads for nurses, to reduce paperwork, allow them to access patient records remotely and increase face-to-face clinical time, said Dix. They could access their appointment timetable from home and would go home to carry out admin tasks after seeing their patients, meaning they had no interaction with other nurses. “The organisation forgot that peer-to-peer support time,” said Dix. “And I’m not sure how you can proxy that through technology.”