humans and technology

Couples Counseling for Humans and Technology

If we had to assign a Facebook relationship status to humans and technology at work, it would definitely be “it’s complicated.” While technology has unquestionably revolutionized what’s possible across roles from frontline to C-suite on a day-to-day basis, it also frustrates us and even exhausts us.

It would be incredibly cathartic to rant about all the ways technology drives us crazy at work—and it would probably be pretty amusing for you to read, too! But just kvetching wouldn’t actually be helpful. So after we explore a bit of the “how and why” technology at work can be such a challenge, we’ll then explore how to make your organization’s experience of and value derived from technology as great as possible— by harnessing it to a human way of working. Technology itself gets a bad rap; fix it using our approach, and the systems we rely on can go from dystopian to utopian in a flash.

When technology drives us crazy

Problematic technology at work haunts our collective dreams. Virtually any movie set in the workplace features some moment where technology goes haywire. If you’re GenX, like me, Office Space’s repeated error message “PC Load Letter”—provoking the main characters to destroy a printer with a baseball bat—perfectly captures a certain kind of low-level tech failure that quietly makes your job impossible. 

It’s not the big catastrophes dragging us down. It’s the many, many little moments where technology just doesn’t quite work right. These moments can be hilarious—think of the poor lawyer accidentally wearing a “kitten” filter on a Zoom call with a judge, protesting that he was not, in fact, a cat! There are also ominous moments where, like the evil computer Hal in 2001, technology jumps in and shapes our behavior in undesirable ways. In New York City today, pedestrians are forced to dodge an ever-burgeoning array of delivery drivers on electric bikes—barreling along at excessive speed across roads and sidewalks alike because an app’s algorithm told them it “should” take a certain amount of time to make a particular delivery. The cat-faced lawyer is funny; nearly getting killed by a bike messenger toting rotisserie chicken is not.

Our everyday frustrations

In between those two extremes lies a world of low-grade but pervasive frustration. A study conducted by tech firm Citrix in 2021 perfectly captures this dynamic: the researchers found that 71 percent of the employees they surveyed believed collaboration and communication technology had made their work more complex. The study noted that 33 percent of workers dealt with 10–20 different communication or collaboration technologies in a day, which is tiring even if they all work perfectly. Of those surveyed, 18 percent had considered quitting due to bad technology experiences, which is not terribly surprising given the research we examined previously, in which nearly half of the time using technology at work was believed to be wasted.

The rapid pace of technological change was supposed to solve any number of frustrations, but in many cases, the opposite occurs: new technology drives us even crazier. A Gartner study found that 60 percent of workers had gotten frustrated with new software in the last two years and that 56 percent of workers surveyed actually wanted the old technology back, a dispiriting message to organizations that spend billions on technological upgrades.

So what does “couples counseling” for humans and technology look like?

Here are a few ways to mend the critical relationship between humans and technology:

  • Make sure you’re choosing tech for the right reasons. Much of our disappointment with technology at work hinges upon excessive expectations for what it can deliver.  For instance, implementing a sophisticated “system of record” doesn’t mean thousands of employees will magically start entering the right data in the right form in a timely fashion. Being realistic about what tech can accomplish—and where you actually need changes to structures, processes, and fundamental human behavior—can often re-position the very same technology from employee foe to trusted friend.
  • Have an honest conversation about cybersecurity and what it’s going to FEEL like.  In a threat-rich world, companies are forced to constantly up their levels of cyber protection. Staying safe often directly affects employee experience of technology, as system upgrades, two-factor authentication and other measures can feel slow and laborious. The solution isn’t to compromise on cyber protection but rather to speak honestly to employees about the specific impacts they will experience from enhanced cyber safety, and why the upside is worth the frictional downside.
  • “Marie Kondo” your tech stack—using an employee’s-eye view.  Because we live in an age of fertile technological innovation (which is a good thing), organizations quite easily accrue a dizzying array of systems and apps (which is experienced by employees as a bad thing). Time for a Marie Kondo moment: does each technology actually help get work done, and is it delivering what it should in the context of the technologies around it? A bit of de-cluttering can produce a dramatically improved employee experience.

When humans and technology work together well, magic happens. But to make this magic a reality, we have to engage in a bit of “couples counseling” and create a harmonious relationship that drives productivity and employee happiness alike. 

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About Melissa Swift

Melissa Swift, author and Transformation Leader at Mercer, partners with clients to help them bring their workforces to a different and better future—the subject of her book “Work Here Now: Think Like a Human and Build a Powerhouse Workplace.” She’s a frequent keynote speaker and avid blogger, and passionate about Mercer!

Her work leverages data analytics, a healthy dose of pragmatism and a humanist view of the workplace to create extraordinary outcomes for organizations. A fast-moving world requires changes to the work we do, shifts in the skills and behaviors required to do that work and fundamental re-sets on many different ways of working. She feels proud to lead multidisciplinary teams that help make these changes happen.

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