Is ‘always on’ technology a real turn-off?

The news that the average British adult clocks up more time on their PC than watching TV will have struck a chord with many employers. And as mobile devices have grown in popularity and sophistication – e-mail and the internet can now be accessed through hand-held devices – it has become difficult to know where work stops and home life begins.

That’s why last month the mobile phone network operator Orange set up a coalition of public and private sector employers, academics and the communications industry to assess the impact mobile technology has on workplace cultures.

The Orange Future Enterprise Coalition (OFEC) wants employers to encourage staff to mentally switch off out of hours, despite the demands of ‘always-on’ devices such as mobile phones, palmtop computers and laptops.

“Mobile technologies are a force for good, but they can mean a trade-off between the freedom to work outside the office and the extension of work outside office hours,” says Alastair MacLeod, vice-president of Orange Business Solutions.

And by allowing greater freedom to work remotely, organisations also run the risk of losing the creativity and camaraderie that comes from sharing ideas in the office, warns Andrew Curry, a director at research centre Henley Centre HeadlightVision.

“There’s a real sense that mobility and flexibility reduce human contact,” he says. “Employers must define where human contact is advantageous to them.”

People networks

So what can HR professionals do to help build people policies that make the most of mobile technology without compromising their employees?

At technology firm Siemens Communications, learning and development director Lucinda Carney has been looking at using Myers-Briggs psychometric questionnaires with customers to assess how different individuals work. She says there are certain personalities who will prefer greater contact with the office and those who are happy to operate independently.

“If you’re a ‘judger’, you will be better at planning your day, while if you’re a ‘perceiver’, you might feel less in control in a remote situation,” she explains.

Better timing

Another approach is to work with the IT department to build policies into e-mail and other messaging programmes to ensure that staff don’t receive communications when they’re supposed to be enjoying time at home. The only problem with that, however, is that stopping e-mails over the weekend, for example, can often mean a glut of messages when the person returns to work the following Monday.

More important, says Carney, is to create clarity around when and where staff will be ‘at work’ and what levels of contact you require from them. “Help the organisation manage the behavioural change around flexible working as well as getting to grips with the technology,” she advises.
Above all, employers need to watch out for the tell-tale signs of device fixation.

Henley Centre HeadlightVision’s research into mobile behaviour frequently came across instances where managers literally had to force employees to switch off. As one respondent reported: “It’s easy to get addicted when you’re not used to using mobile data. It has been known for me to confiscate people’s devices when they go on holiday.”

The challenge is to strike the right balance. Mobile technology can empower employees to work wherever and whenever they want, but it can also become a terrible burden for those who fail to adapt to the routine.

e-HR case study: Yorkshire Water

Field engineers at utility company Yorkshire Water have had to come to a terms with a major cultural shift in how they work.

Until 2002, their day-to-day work involved clocking on at a depot, collecting a list of jobs for the day and generally going backwards and forwards.
Now engineers have their own rugged laptops, which they log on to each morning from home and download their jobs for the day. They keep a central contact centre up to date with their status (in the car, on a job, etc), while the contact centre feeds back any essential information they require for the job – all over the mobile network.

This means Yorkshire Water can now offer customers two-hour slots for appointments, and there are fewer emergency call-outs as engineers are more on top of problems.

But the company has invested heavily in getting the training right to ensure its engineers are comfortable accessing the technology on their own – frequently at odd hours of the day and in unusual circumstances, such as when dealing with a burst water main.

Alan Harrison, IT director at Yorkshire Water, says: “You have to put the people bit up front if you want to add value with technology. It’s easy for myths to grow around the technology, so you have to spend time with people looking at how they work.”

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