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People are the answer to productivity not technology

8 August 2019

It's time to knock technology off its pedestal and put people first in business, says a leading New Zealand technology commentator.

Chief technology officer at OneHQ, Warren Hughes, said people are the business, and people prefer communication that is face-to-face rather than some over-hyped collaborative software platform that promises productivity but delivers complexity.

"It's time to put technology in its place. It should not be front and centre in your business," Hughes said. "Having led pretty big teams, directly and indirectly, I know from experience that technology is marketed for its productivity. However, the things that really contribute to productivity are less tangible like, for example, happy people, flexible hours and flexible workplace locations.”

As an example, happy salespeople are 37 per cent more productive than unhappy salespeople.

"The primary driver of productivity in business is engaged, happy employees and you achieve that by putting people first. There has been a huge hype around collaboration and productivity software like AI digital humans and chatbots – but they're of no value unless they're actually making communication better for staff and customers – the two should not be inseparable."

Hughes said that he knows from experience that employees prefer face-to-face or telephone communication whenever possible. because its personal and straightforward and improves comprehension

"When you install additional channels of communication, with chat apps like Slack and Teams, for example, you are more likely to cause fatigue and burnout than improve productivity. If you do introduce a solution like Slack, it should replace another solution. Just piling one solution on top of another wastes times and energy.”

Hughes said the nett result is an always-on workforce, which has been catastrophic to productivity, mental health and family relationships.

"It's bizarre that we have people working in the same office communicating with each other via email or chat apps. It is far more productive to get up off your butt and talk to the person. The problem with technology is that it eliminates all the non-verbal signals like expression, tone and body language; how does that contribute to better communication and collaboration?

"Even emails can be misinterpreted as being terse, annoyed or dismissive because they lack context. By focusing on technology as a panacea, you risk reducing productivity and negatively impacting employee engagement.”

Hughes said it is more important for employees to feel they matter and that what they do has an impact.

"Technology can be a costly middleman if it is not employed correctly. It is okay if it is successfully applied to create more flexibility in the workplace, or better communication provided it is only one of two or so channels for the purpose.

"Realtime chat tools provide better immediacy, but they haven't reduced emails. They're just another channel that employees need to manage, and they're also an interrupter. Unless you are good at managing your time, you get constant interruptions from real-time alerts, and they are inconsiderate of the other person's time. Emails you can at least manage on your terms."

Hughes said technology has tremendous value, but its use within a business needs thoughtful consideration of the up and downsides.

1. Be aware of the negatives

Hughes said that sending alerts and messages to employees after-hours is not healthy because, even if otherwise instructed, employees feel an obligation to respond – even if the 'boss' isn't expecting an instant reply.

"I might think of something over the weekend. Worried that I may forget, I quickly send a message to an employee with no expectation that they will reply – but they do respond, because of that sense of obligation. It means people are always on. It is not healthy.

"My advice is to have rules and processes to minimise the interruption factor of technology. Have a plan for combatting the negatives."

2. Simplify your technology suite

Hughes said that any businesses which introduces a new communications channel would be well advised to reduce or eliminate an existing one.

"If you introduce another communications channel for the benefits to outweigh the negatives, you need to teach people how and when to use that channel. Failure to do so will mean inefficient use of that channel."

3. Put your people first

"We are social creatures. We want camaraderie and a sense of belonging and liking with the people we work with. These are leading contributors to employee happiness.

"Don't expect your employees to be available 24/7 and always on. I worked in places where we implemented rules to stop email delivery after 7 pm – this sends the right signal to your team. The system will hold email and not deliver it until business hours. When you use technology in that way, it sends an incredibly powerful message. It sets boundaries and expectations around your employees' availability to your clients."

4. Use automation carefully

Hughes said automation should really only be used to make the working lives of your team more comfortable.

"Automation does not replace human creativity. Use it instead to do the stuff that drags your employees down so that automation is contributing to greater energy and creativity around their high impact activities. Employees will be less worried about being replaced by automation when they realise it is there to make their day-to-day lives easier."

Hughes called on New Zealand companies to put serious thought into technology that genuinely benefits employee health, happiness and relationships.

"I am and have been a passionate technologist for over 30 years, but I hate seeing technology interfere and get in the way of relationships between people."

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