Senior Lecturer Birkbeck University of London
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E-resilience: why should HR and L&D care?

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27th Jun 2016
Senior Lecturer Birkbeck University of London
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This piece was co-written by Almuth McDowall, Birkbeck University of London and Professor Gail Kinman, University of Bedfordshire.

There is no doubt that technology continues to change the way we work globally. Using portable information communication technology (ICT) undoubtedly has many advantages: communication is instant, global connections are facilitated, and people can work anytime and anywhere. ICT enhances flexibility with potential benefits for work-life balance, as it can allow us to work at home or other locations and to adapt working hours to our personal needs and preferences.

The 'dark side' of IT?

Nevertheless, there is a potential dark side to ICT as it can encourage employees to be always available regardless of time or location; it is therefore crucial to help individuals and organisations engage with technology in a manner that does not impair their wellbeing or their professional effectiveness. The Switched-on Culture Research Group (SOCRG) was formed in 2015 to explore the wide-ranging implications of ICT use for the wellbeing of individuals and organisations.

We have recently developed the concept of ‘e-resilience’ that refers to the behaviours and environmental interactions that help individuals engage with ICT in a healthy and sustainable way.

A well-attended and thought-provoking conference in London (April 2016) explored this emerging concept by considering the activities and interventions that are needed to help workers, organisations and line managers become more e-resilient.

The event brought together high-profile researchers, practitioners and representatives of professional associations and industry experts to engage in a lively and stimulating debate about how work, and life more generally, is changing in the fast-evolving digital economy.

The notion of “work-life balance” or “work-family balance” has become more complex, as we need to juggle our online and digital lives and presence as well as our roles within work, family and other domains.

How we do this depends on a number of factors, including organisational culture relating to the use of ICT, the extent to which organisations offer support to employees, the ‘goodness of fit’ between the support offered and that which is required, as well as demographic differences and personal preferences for ICT use.

'The Jurassic Park Principle'

David D’Souza, Head of London and Head of Engagement for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development very vividly brought to life some of the paradoxes inherent in the changing nature of work.

He outlined the “Jurassic Park Principle”, arguing that, although technology continues to shape the world of work, we need to hang on to human principles to guide its development and ensure that we retain autonomy and choice over its use.

There is a potentially dark side to technological advances, for instance a fine line exists between utilising ICT to collect (and utilise) good quality organisational data and using it for monitoring and surveillance. David made a passionate appeal to HR practitioners and the world at large, not only to embrace technological change but also to drive it by developing more appropriate practices rather than sticking to old ways of working.

Using technology in a 'systematic' way

Richard MacKinnon, from the Future Work Centre, focused on the need to examine the use of technology in a systematic way, rather than taking a short-term ‘scatter gun’ approach. He rightly questioned why so many organisations are so reliant on technology, yet do not train and develop their staff appropriately. Richard acknowledged, however that there is little evidence-based guidance available to inform interventions.

Richard is a strong advocate of targeted training, arguing that workers often fail to use the functional potential of technology to its full advantage. He highlighted a paradox as the one issue that has changed work so fundamentally (i.e. technology) is typically left to workers to self-manage, without appropriate support and development initiatives.

Workers often fail to use the functional potential of technology to its full advantage.

Attempts to self-regulate ICT use are frequently unsuccessful and are likely to lead to work intensification and encourage expectations of rapid response with major costs for work-life balance and wellbeing. Richard pointed out that some countries are considering introducing legislation where employees are not required to engage with emails at certain times or in certain locations, but he argued that support that is more precisely-targeted may reap greater benefits.

Are we prepared for the 'digital age?'

Alison Maitland, who is a former Financial Times journalist and co-author of the book ‘Future Work’, discussed the key role of organisational culture in ICT use, emphasising the need for ways of working that are more appropriate to the digital age. Alison highlighted the importance of agile and smart working, arguing that organisations need to manage by outputs rather than time spent on the job and emphasised the need for trust on the part of managers and senior leaders, and respect for others who may prefer to use ICT in a different way. The need to recruit managers for these skills was highlighted in order to develop an organisational culture that is fit for future work.

Email - used and abused

Jean-Francois (Jeff) Stich from the University of Lancaster and Emma Russell from Kingston University both focused on email - perhaps the most widely used and potentially abused mode of communication in organisations.

Drawing on the findings of his research, Jeff argued that the mere volume of email that people receive and process does not predict stress, but the key factors are the extent to which we can accommodate our personal preferences for email use and whether we are aware of others’ needs. Emma drew on her extensive body of research to consider how individual differences can influence engagement with email and the way it impacts on wellbeing. She indicated that 70% of us reply to an email immediately after receiving it and argued that there is an addictive element to opening our inbox; an experience that many of us in the audience could relate to.

The mere volume of email that people receive and process does not predict stress.

Emma’s research has identified a wide range of strategies that people use to manage emails, and has found firm evidence that our personality shapes how we manage and react to electronic communication. Such findings have important implications for training and selection; her team will shortly be embarking on more organisationally-focused research to explore the fit between organisational practices and people’s needs and preferences.

A new concept of 'e-resilience'

Representing the SOCRG, Almuth McDowall and Gail Kinman drilled down further into the emerging concept of e-resilience.

They drew upon a survey recently conducted by the SOCRG with approximately 400 respondents across industries and organisations that explored people’s attitudes to ICT and support initiatives. The findings revealed that over half of organisations (57%) do not provide any guidance or training on how to use or switch off from technology.

Moreover, 40% of respondents think it is the employee’s role to control their engagement with ICT, about 50% see this as a shared responsibility (between staff and the organisation), and 10% consider ICT management to be the employee’s sole responsibility. IT functions were most likely to be considered responsible for managing ICT use within organisations (32%), followed by line managers (23%).

These findings indicate that the line of responsibility for helping employees manage ITC is unclear and that action is needed to ensure organisations have a clear strategy and action plan in place to manage this issue. The survey also asked participants about the benefits and pitfalls of ICT use. Improved communications and productivity are thought to be the main benefits, whereas reduced personal wellbeing and poor quality relationships at work are the most negative aspects.

The line of responsibility for helping employees manage ITC is unclear.

The presentation closed with evidence-based tips and strategies for individuals, supervisors and organisations that centred around better self-management, being mindful of others preferences, and the need for appropriate training and development.

What is the impact on HR practitioners?

The conference highlighted serious implications for HR practitioners that need attention. Evidence is growing that ICT use may come at a cost if no one champions the e-resilience agenda. It is clear that organisations need to have well-articulated policies guided by sound evidence in place, which reflect the local context and the needs of the employees as well as the business.

But policies also need to be put into practice; the documented rise in email stress and the serious risk of overload indicates that leaving it to employees to ‘train themselves’ to use ITCs in a healthy and sustainable way is unwise and may negatively affect their wellbeing and performance over the longer-term.

Evidence is growing that ICT use may come at a cost if no one champions the e-resilience agenda.

Repeat training and development is required which will provide a feedback cycle on what is working well, and what is not, in order to help practitioners to adapt their initiatives accordingly. In addition, it is advisable to conduct regular pulse check surveys with all staff that focus on the following areas:

  1. Do people know about your policy and guidelines relating to ICT use?
  2. How does e-communication work in your organisation; e.g. what are the potential problems with email, blog use, or otherwise? To what extent are these recognised and managed?
  3. What is the role of line managers and supervisors in guiding and maintaining policy?
  4. What is the culture around ICT use and electronic communication in your organisation? Are expectations regarding ICT use (e.g. in terms of volume and timing) clearly spelled out? Is your organisation aware that failure to disengage from ICT can impair wellbeing and job performance via lack of recovery time?
  5. Are people or groups of people within your organisation over-worked or struggling due to ICT? Conversely, are there pockets of good or excellent practice in your organisations around ICT use, and what can others learn from them?
  6. To what extent are people aware that the practices and preferences of others regarding the use of ICT may clash with their own?  What guidance do they have to help them become more empathic?

Conclusions

Overall, the concept of ‘e-resilience’ is novel and useful and can help individuals and organisations engage with ICT in a more healthy and sustainable way. It recognises that employees, employers and society as a whole have shared responsibility to manage the changing nature of work. Research findings indicate that organisations should resist simplistic ‘one-size-fits-all’ initiatives, as blanket bans on email and other ‘top down’ solutions may be nothing more than panic reactions.

More seriously, there is evidence that such initiatives may be resisted by employees – especially those who expect a high degree of control over the way they work and people with caring responsibilities who may need to juggle work with other demands.

Yes, we need boundaries around technology use to encourage people to switch off and recover adequately from work, but control, autonomy, choice and support are important elements when designing HR solutions for healthy ICT use. Decades of organisational research back this up, and there is no indication that these key elements will change in the digital age.

One thing is clear however: HR and other practitioners need to take up the challenge to ensure that ICTs do not become the master rather than the servant.

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