Getting the balance right in a technology-dominated world

Peppers-overload of tech-2016

Need to know:

  • An employer could draw up technology etiquette covering areas such as the time emails can be sent and when employees can log on to help create a healthy work-life balance.
  • Employers could use a variety of communication methods, including more traditional presentations, desk drops and brochures alongside benefits portals and apps.
  • Healthcare trackers should never be compulsory, and should look to reward effort rather than performance.

Technology has changed the way we live and work, enabling us to do everything from checking our emails on the go and video conferencing our colleagues around the world to turning on the heating so it is cosy when we get home. But while it can make our lives a little easier, it also has the potential to be detrimental.

Matt Smeed, senior business psychologist at business psychology firm Robertson Cooper, says: “Technology can be very empowering, allowing us to do more both at work but also in our personal lives. But, if you don’t have control, it can have a very negative effect, potentially resulting in health problems such as stress and anxiety.”

Switched-on benefits

Technology has certainly overhauled the benefits arena. Online portals and benefits platforms bring major advantages for both employers and employees. Jack Curzon, senior scheme design consultant at Thomsons Online Benefits, explains: “It’s much more convenient for employees to have everything in one place with just one password. It also saves time for employers and, by removing so much manual intervention, reduces risk too.”

Thanks to these conveniences, it is also much easier for employers to offer a broader range of benefits, complemented by plenty of information, tools and calculators to help employees get the most out of their scheme.

But, despite these pluses, sometimes technology can be a bit of a turn-off. Pensions are a good example of this, says Jamie Mackenzie, marketing director at Sodexo Benefits. “If [it’s] too complicated, fewer employees will engage and [the] take-up rate will be low,” he explains. “[Employers need to] understand their audience before they put the communications together. Unless they know [employees] already have a good knowledge of pensions, [they should] consider running seminars and presentations before giving them online information and tools.”

It is sensible to have a blend of communication methods to drive benefits engagement, says Zoe Spicer, an independent HR consultant and a lecturer at Ashridge Business School. These can include emails, posters, brochures, seminars, desk drops and face-to-face presentations. “Employees do still want to be able to speak to someone if they’re not sure about something or they want more information,” she says. “Don’t assume they’ll all be happy with a portal or an app.”

But while technology might not be the single answer to driving engagement with benefits, it can certainly help an employer understand what works. Benefits platforms can provide plenty of management information to show how employees use these and which communication methods they prefer. Employers should therefore monitor everything so they can see what works well, says Curzon. “Don’t be afraid to revisit different methods; preferences can change quickly as people get used to new technology,” he adds.

Tracking every move

One piece of technology that is becoming increasingly common in the workplace is the healthcare tracker. These can have a positive effect on activity levels but there are potentially negative sides too. As well as the potential for staff to perceive such devices as having an element of Big Brother to them if data is being fed back to the employer, their use within competitions can take less-active employees right back to their school days when they might have been the last picked for the rounders team.

To avoid such negative perceptions, health-tracking technology must be implemented in a sensible way, says Iain Laws, managing director, healthcare and group risk at Jelf Employee Benefits. “[Employers] can’t make these compulsory [because] there will always be people who don’t want to wear them,” he explains. “And don’t just dump them on people; spend 10 minutes talking [employees] through the functions and they’ll get a lot more out of it.”

Looking for a device that tracks a variety of health information such as diet and sleep, as well as number of steps taken could mean that more employees are able to engage with the technology.

Another area where healthcare trackers can potentially demotivate employees is if they are used in conjunction with league tables. Although showing the top performers can be aspirational and help to fire up the competition, employers should steer clear of going beyond the top 10 or so, says Rob Hicks, head of HR at Reward Gateway. “Consider flagging up the biggest improvers rather than the best performers and never publish the bottom of the table,” he says. “This will only demotivate these individuals, even though they might be putting in a lot more effort than those at the top of the table.”

Time to turn off

Technology has also made it easier to work more flexibly, with employees now able to log on securely wherever and whenever they like. “We’ve moved from work-life balance to work-life integration,” says Smeed. “By using technology appropriately, more employees can do the school run or go to the gym and catch up on their work later. It’s a very empowering level of flexibility.”

But getting the balance right can be tricky, with employees feeling under pressure to check and reply to emails at all hours of the day. Add to this the rise of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) schemes and some employees can feel they are being kitted out to work 24/7.

The way employees interpret this flexibility is down to the messaging employers use, says James Kelly, head of sales at P&MM Employee Benefits. “Employers must focus on the flexibility technology offers not the fact that employees will be able to work late into the night,” he explains. “The marketing collateral has to support the benefits not encourage employees to work longer and longer hours.”

Setting rules around working hours and expectations can also help. These could include banning emails after a particular time or ensuring there is cover for someone on holiday so they are able to relax and enjoy their time off. “Managers must lead by example,” adds Spicer. “If [they’re] sending out an email at 10pm, [they should] put a note in the title saying [they] don’t expect a response until the morning. This helps to set expectations so employees don’t feel under pressure to reply.”

And getting the balance right is important, bringing significant rewards to both parties. Where an employee feels able to use technology to support their work-life balance it can be really empowering. As Hicks says: “When the balance is right it can help you to achieve so much more. This is great news for both employees and their employers.”

AlfrescoAlfresco uses technology to engage staff with benefits

Alfresco is a content and business process management organisation employing around 400 people in 13 countries around the world, including the UK, where its Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) headquarters are based. It provides its employees with a benefits package, including medical and dental insurance, childcare vouchers, group income protection and a health cash plan, which are available via a benefits portal.

Patti Rain-Wiffin, director, global human resources, says: “We introduced a benefits portal five years ago to make it easy for our employees to find out about the different benefits and pick the ones they wanted.

“This resulted in an increase in take-up but we still find there’s a need for face-to-face communications.”

Two groups in particular prefer the more personal approach: new joiners and migrant workers, says Rain-Wiffin. “We used to have a webinar to explain the benefits package to new joiners but we found they preferred to speak to someone about what we offer,” she explains.

“Similarly we’ve recruited a lot of migrants in the last couple of years. They don’t necessarily know our benefits systems so they often have a lot of questions that can only be answered face to face.”

The organisation also provides access to financial advisers where employees need further guidance. “Some things work much better thanks to technology but we do find there’s still a need for the personal touch,” Rain-Wiffin adds.

AllpayAllpay encourages breaks away from technology

Technology is a key part of the working day at payments specialist Allpay. The organisation, which employs around 300 people, provides a range of services, including bill payment, prepaid cards and cashless payment systems. Ensuring staff take regular time away from technology, therefore, is actively encouraged throughout the organisation.

Steve Foulger, head of HR at Allpay, explains: “Around half of our staff are in IT with the remainder working in support services, such as our call centre or out on the road. We know they work hard so we encourage them to take time away from their desks throughout the day.”

To support this, employees are not allowed to eat or drink at their desks but are instead encouraged to take coffee and lunch breaks in the restaurant, on the sofas and, weather permitting, outside in the nature reserve the firm has created. It also provides an onsite gym and personal trainer and runs a regular Friday afternoon ‘happy hour’, where employees can take a break over a free luxury beverage and cream cake.

“It’s really important to let our employees have a break and relax,” Foulger adds. “Our organisation started out small back in 1996 and we’re keen to keep the social element. By enabling employees to take time out and talk to one another, as well as benefiting from the break, ideas come that are good for the business.”

Grant Christine-Coventry University-2016Viewpoint: Employers can provide training and education to help staff switch off

The switched-on culture is becoming a well-used phrase that describes many of us with constant access to technology. It seems that we can never fully remove ourselves from the impulse to gaze at a screen, leading us to merge together work and non-working activities. Organisations are becoming concerned with the wellbeing of their employees where email access can mean that employees are not fully recuperating from work.

A globalised culture and the ability to access work 24/7 through technology can have a considerable impact on an employee’s work-life balance, wellbeing and effectiveness. Being always switched on may have some very positive uses, such as increasing flexibility to work differing hours of the day, but it can also lead to over-working and extreme tiredness.

Enabling individuals to develop healthy behaviours when utilising technology may sound simple but the ping of an email or text can start a lengthy spell on a smartphone or computer. Staying on technology may mean that we are not concentrating fully on those around us and can affect our relationships.

The first step to resolving these issues is to become self aware of our technology-related behaviours; are we merging boundaries and staring at screens when we could be completing other activities? Developing self-management strategies is key, and these may differ for individuals depending on their job role and on factors such as personality.

An exploration of the psychological factors affecting remote e-worker’s job effectiveness, wellbeing and work-life balance (Grant, C.A., Wallace L.M. and Spurgeon P. C., 2013, Employee Relations, 5, 35) found that e-workers use technology most effectively when they have autonomy over their work. E-worker resilience can be trained and e-management competences identified to aid education and training that takes into account individual differences.

Employers can use education and training to help e-workers develop a better awareness of their habits, enabling individuals to understand where they can resolve issues themselves. Recognising that employees may have different working hours or approaches to managing their boundaries means that the best solutions can often come from the individual themselves.

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Employers can help by providing the training and resources required to ensure that people do not become addicted to technology. Nonetheless, it needs to be noted that a true addiction relates to only a very small minority who may have compulsive tendencies or personalities.

Dr Christine Grant is an occupational psychologist and senior lecturer at Coventry University

CMI-working life report-2016