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Questions that can help your team manage technology overload

Of all the problems caused by the pandemic, too much technology wouldn't seem like a priority. But being overwhelmed by ever-present technology is a real phenomenon, especially as employees continue to absorb new software, apps and processes driven by the pandemic. Not to mention everything going on at home and in their communities.

The good news for managers is that this isn't just about coming to your team's rescue. You also have an opportunity to help them today while helping your organization be smarter and more strategic going forward.

Why would tech be a problem, you ask? After all, it’s technology that has enabled so many companies to function remotely without shutting down. Businesses that maintained a physical presence have benefited from moving operations and sales online, from communication tools, business software and more. And even though education has all sorts of problems in the US right now, technology has given districts and colleges options they wouldn’t have had even 30 years ago. Let us not forget that a different sort of technology will help us treat and vaccinate against the coronavirus.

But of course, there is too much of a good thing. Just ask anyone about Zoom fatigue, not to mention how frustrating technology can be when we initially struggle to understand and use it. Remote work and a lack of in-person interactions can exacerbate this reliance on technology and our feelings about it, There's also a strategic and financial angle. Technologies that are rushed into use can hurt productivity and dishearten employees. Software solutions are potentially expensive in terms of a pure cost outlay, too. And, maybe worst, if these ineffective or burdensome technologies become part of the bureaucracy, everyone will suffer for years down the line.

Even in this hectic time, managers and organizations need to be empathetic and aware of how technology can frustrate or overwhelm their employees.

How to do this? Well, every workplace is different. Every employee has a different tolerance for technology, and age or role don’t necessarily indicate who will feel most overwhelmed or even confused. Every industry has a different set of tech tools and a different level of inconvenience imposed by social distancing, lockdowns and other pandemic-related measures. These variable, ever-changing situations are where attentive and thoughtful managers are most needed.

And so while I can’t offer blanket situations, I can share a few experiences I’ve had, witnessed or seen. And they start with asking a few basic questions, then digging in with inquiry, observation, surveys and other forms of data collection. And, of course, you'll eventually need to act on your findings. Let's quickly discuss some of the questions.

How has the typical day for your team changed?

I’ll give myself as an example. I’ve split my time between home and the office for more than a decade. I’ve had a proper home-office setup for several years. I learned online and collaborated with groups using Zoom before the pandemic. Yet, my workday is radically different than it was at the beginning of March.

Suddenly, there are no opportunities to chat idly with co-workers, especially from other teams and departments. There are no work conundrums discussed over coffee, no walking over to someone's desk, no going to lunch or happy hour. Numerous co-workers have moved out of the area, and we haven’t been able to say goodbye in person. There's not even that midday commute to the office to clear my mind between deadlines.

That's all before we talk about formal meetings. While conference rooms aren't anyone's paradise, they do break up the day in a way that remaining in your home chair doesn't. But even remote meetings can feel different nowadays, with the new default of video instead of a phone call. It’s not about loving or hating one medium or the other; the shift in default alone is psychologically significant.

Your workday might have changed in different ways. Your team's workday might have changed in still different ways. Make sure you understand how.

What are the pain points for employees?

Many companies that shifted, in part or in full, to remote work have added software to substitute for what used to be done on site (not to mention everyone suddenly learning what a VPN is). Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s not that people can’t learn technology or adjust. But change is hard, and we should acknowledge when it's happening.

So, questions to ask yourself include:

  • What training was made available?
  • Where does this new software or technology save time and energy? Where does it add steps? A few extra clicks of the mouse seems fine until 1,000 people are each adding 1,000 clicks to their workflow each week.
  • Does the software change collaboration? Does it affect the data that people can access?
  • Does the technology alter how decisions are made at the executive level?
  • How does substituting technology for proximity affect individual contributors? For example, do they still feel they empowered to take the initiative? Do they suppress questions they used to raise by poking their head in your office?
  • What job roles and functions have been affected more than others?

Treat this fact-finding as just that, not an inquisition. Even the best of rollouts have problems, and it’s normal to have a learning curve, a retraining of muscle memory and a temporary reduction in efficiency. What’s also expected is that leaders will keep working to improve the employee experience.

What’s written down?

Someone I know recently took time off, and they noted their out-of-office status in their email, their calendar and on their chat platform. They also communicated with numerous co-workers about projects and tasks that might come up.

Setting yourself as "OOO'" in at least three different places seems like too many, right? But it wasn't enough. There was yet another tech platform, a project-management tool, where they neglected to log their unavailability (or didn’t know they could do so).

And so, of course, someone that week messaged and said, “Hey, what’s up with X?" This is no one’s fault, but it’s also clear that there are some process issues caused by too much technology and not enough personal connection. As managers, ask yourself questions like:

  1. How difficult is it to loop everyone in? How many different places do messages have to be communicated -- and is this more or less than before the pandemic?
  2. How do people feel their productivity, creativity and/or focus are affected by new busywork?
  3. What’s the documentation for taking time off (or whatever the process is)? Has that been updated since the pandemic began?
  4. What other conversations like this could have been completed with a short walk to a co-worker's desk and now are remote-only? Are those alternatives documented?

Successful remote cultures can communicate in many ways, but they are writing cultures, as Basecamp has shown.

Literally, is there a bandwidth issue?

Employees aren’t all just sitting at home enjoying breezy internet. More of their neighbors are home, also heavily online. Many people have children at home, and home connections can struggle to support many simultaneous video connections. Some of your younger employees are themselves with their parents, who also might be working. There are bound to be more issues just getting set up to work -- and staying online throughout the day.

Handling this issue can be tricky from afar, but wondering “is everyone’s internet OK?” is just another question that's new to life in 2020.

Ask, listen, think

I know many of you are already thinking about these questions. But we must keep doing so, because the status quo is over. If it helps, write yourself a reminder to check in on these questions and concerns. The habits of inquiry you develop can help you now and after "normal" returns, whatever that looks like.

I emphasize: Managers don’t have to be the end-all answer for these issues. But they can be a sounding board, a resource and a driver of better processes and communication that make all this new technology helpful, not harmful.

 

James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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