Somewhere on the road to leisure, we took a turn down the information highway. There is no doubt that we can do more with less in this digital age. Also, during this same momentous time period we, theoretically, moved away from command and control leadership toward greater use of the collaborative, toward participation and consensus building. Other phrases such as life balance have crept into the jargon of business, as if they actually mean something. But, something’s not right.
Let’s imagine that I am an ambitious boss, not evil, just a tad insensitive and desiring the best for my company. I have the capability to communicate with my “team” of leaders at any time, by email, through a smartphone or tablet. I can discuss, give orders, criticize and never have to leave my office, or car, or wherever an idea – good or bad — crosses my brain. Of course, because I am the boss, I deserve and expect to be heard. The average, conscientious subordinate will never stand tall and say,
“Boss, I’m drowning, I have no time for my wife and kids, I have fifty to a hundred emails a day to answer, twenty calls to make that are backed up at any moment in time, I work on week-ends, late into the night, and often arrive early at the office because it is the only time I have to clean up my communications, many of which make no sense or are a waste of time. I am stressed out, short tempered, always trying to catch up and with little time to plan or think strategically and no time to attempt mentoring or developing my own people.”
The “all access all the time” attitude generated seeps down into the organization, which increasingly responds with an urgency that suggests the last command is the most important. While “life-balance” is often banded about, in reality not responding to the latest urgent directive can be perceived as being complacent, lazy or, even, disloyal. The norm (unspoken rule) in some organizations is that email must be responded to in less than an hour, text messages immediately. Think what that does to the stress factor.
The process is insidious and persistent and cultivates a culture of conformity that is conflict averse and less and less open to feedback or the notion of being self-critical. Conformity dominates meetings (see group think) because not only is there no time for dissent, but, little apparent advantage for doing so. Multi-tasking is valued with more credits for getting something out of the way and completed. Quality or concern about “how” the work is accomplished and the long-term consequences on morale and productivity are of less and less interest. Just do it is the melody and don’t complain is the lyric.
Technology, with all its benefits, has simply exaggerated the emphasis on the what of work – the bottom line and the speed of getting there. There is little or no focus on the how. While we are willing to look at the process of work-flow, what is lost are the bigger process issues which underlie morale and productivity: How power is distributed, how people relate and engage with each other, whether trust is gained or lost, and whether those who do the heavy lifting feel appreciated and of high regard to those in positions of influence.
Instead of the 30 hour work week promised by technology years ago, 50 or 60 is the norm, particularly for the ambitious manager. In some quarters it has become a calculated, even abusive, means of squeezing hundreds of additional hours out of managers a year – without paying for it – an expectation rather than an exception. It has been almost invisible, an insidious, covert process without discussion or negotiation. The new technologies have swept into business unbounded, without thought of the detrimental consequences on the system. The quite obvious short-term benefits are being countered by the cumulative impact of stress, disorganization and crisis management.
So, what’s the real price organizations, and individuals, are paying for technology?