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Technology to the Rescue

Posted on Sat, 2020-03-21 10:17 by SPACE

Thought piece: in the mad dash for technology, Hugh Anderson casts a sceptical eye on the “benefits” that sometimes emerge.

There is little new in the idea that innovations in technology fuel change – in the workplace as much as anywhere else. It is received wisdom also that change equates to progress and that progress is “a good thing”. Similarly, to challenge “new ways of working” in the office is to be a Luddite, and organisations which do not adopt this new flexibility are in rapid danger of being overtaken. They will not be availing themselves of the efficiencies which are an increasing necessity and they will be the ones missing out on the essential collaboration and creativity which such flexibility brings. But to what extent is this mad dash for technology being fully assimilated? To what extent is progress, at all costs, always a good thing?

Clever organisations have learned the importance of engagement with their workforces so that the hopes and fears that go along with impending change can be debated and understood, but there is more than a residual fear that lurks in the minds of most staff, a fear which focusses on loss of quality in the working environment, on noise and disturbance, not to mention the effects of AI and the loss of one’s job. What value progress in a law firm where AI is already supplanting paralegals and secretaries?

To some extent change is always painful and teething problems are bound to accompany the removal of so many of the support systems on which we have come to rely, the ‘enclosed office’, the ‘owned desk’. Skilful design and careful engagement will help, but is that which we are seeing by way of uncertainty just the inherent difficulty of change? To what extent are we becoming blinded by what we see as the power of new technology and immediate business benefit? Is it mere coincidence that the fears of ‘new ways of working’ are reflected at a national and global level? – the rise of popular scepticism seen in the votes for Brexit and Trump? Is it “Luddite” to be scared of the effects of globalisation or to recognise the dangers to our planet of unrestrained commercialism? Is the new interest in “wellbeing”, which extends beyond a belief in fresh air and sunlight, a recognition that quality of life, in all its aspects, is important for us as part of a healthy society, and not just as productive members of the business team?

What is interesting is that the concept of “progress” as it was first espoused in the 18th century was not just about harnessing the resources of science and technology, but was born out of the humanities and a belief in the importance of a quality of life for all. True, that “improvements” were focussed in the main on the technical aspects of welfare, hygiene, safety and improved living conditions, and it is in these spheres that society has made undoubted progress. But these ideas were never far from social reform, if not a belief in the importance of the spiritual wellbeing of workers. Now, it might be argued that the importance of a stable and healthy workforce (witness David Dale and Robert Owen at New Lanark) went hand in hand with the tenets of good business and that to some extent ensuring the wellbeing of a modern workforce is part and parcel of this same business philosophy. But to suggest that it is merely about enlightened business self-interest is to be over cynical or too narrow in understanding its importance. There is good reason to remind ourselves that the benefits of a healthy life style translate fairly simply into a belief in sustainability, if not an appreciation of the dangers of an increasingly polarised society and the moral obligation we bear to one another as human beings.

But what relevance is this to the immediate issue of technology in the workplace? There are dangers in the form of noise and the erosion of personal space, or the abandonment of community and security, but more insidiously there is the psychological dependence we are danger of developing in a belief that technology is always the best way forward, if not the best way of digging ourselves out of a hole.

We have become more clever in our design of air-conditioning, but might the dangers of deep plan offices have been avoided if we had not believed implicitly in technology in the first place, similarly high rise housing and the “benefits” of the combustion engine? The imperatives of progress can possibly be too easily cited when needing to quash any criticism of change. There is a way in which the “reductive narrative about inevitable change” leads to an easy backlash among those unwilling to accept that the impact on their lives is ‘a price worth paying’. There is the danger that we fall into a kind of determinism in which people are expected to adapt to the potential of machines rather than that machines should be designed to enhance human fulfilment.

So, should I feel frustrated by my client who gradually wears down my concept of agile working until the available office space becomes stuffed once more with individually owned but only partially used desks to the detriment of any ‘quality’ but shared workspace? Or should I take this as an honest reminder that what people think they need always comes first?

Progress is possibly inevitable, and the days of individually owned desks and offices and directors’ lunches are possibly over, but this process still requires to be eased and complimented with reminders of what motivates us in the first place, a sense of purpose and belief that what we are doing is actually for the betterment of the world as a whole. That is the significance of focussing on wellbeing, not just because fresh air and sunlight are inherently good for us and help us concentrate, but because they are an expression of a more civilised way of life, where welfare is valued for its own sake, where technology frees up the way we work and allows us to relate to each other as human beings, not just in a way which squeezes every minute out of the working day, no matter where we happen to be. Thus the notion of ‘technology in its place’ should affect the way we view the individual workplace; it should also inform the way we use technology at a corporate level, where our ability to glean and thereafter manipulate personal data on a gigantic scale undoubtedly requires not just new control mechanisms but also new attitudes to social and corporate responsibility if we are not going to start to lose our moral compass. Cambridge Analytica is a wake-up call, but these attitudes as to how we view the rights of individuals start in the office.

The future is bright but not altogether rosy.