Technology has a lot to offer, and businesses have benefited from its availability, especially during the pandemic. But tech proliferation can also create stress, as employees attempt to learn new systems and navigate competing tools.
Research by workplace communication platform Firstup, based in San Francisco, suggests the abundance of workplace channels and potential touchpoints is causing digital overload and overwhelming employees, co-founder and CEO Nicole Alvino said. As a result, employee engagement, productivity and retention are suffering.
HR professionals have an important role to play in minimizing tech fatigue. The first step is a culture check.
Check Your Culture
HR leaders "should reflect on the organization's culture and recognize if they or other leaders either implicitly or explicitly create an environment that highlights the negative impacts of tech," said Cheryl Hanson, a district manager for professional employer organization Insperity, based in Houston.
Hanson encourages HR leaders to have conversations with other company leaders about re-establishing their own behaviors and ensuring they're modeling the behaviors they want to see in employees.
For example, requiring cameras to be on during online meetings "can drain employees," she said. Instead, phone calls could be an appropriate alternative in a hybrid environment in some cases.
"Managers and supervisors play a vital role in alleviating tech pressures for their employees," Hanson said. "Often employees base their behavior on that of their managers, and if managers send e-mails after hours, it may convey [they require] an immediate response from the rest of the team."
Ensure Tech Doesn't Hinder Employee Engagement
While technology can help boost productivity and minimize monotonous work, it can also be a barrier to good work.
Technology doesn't work when it breaks trust, creates confusion or is outdated, said Adam Weber, senior vice president of community at 15Five, a performance management platform. Surveillance software, for instance, can build distrust and animosity between employees and employers, he said.
Requiring employees to check multiple tools to complete a task is another example of how technology can run counter to effective employee engagement. And when technology is outdated and no longer helps employees do their jobs efficiently, the result is more frustration than freedom.
Conduct an App Audit and Commit to Cutting Back
The good news is that auditing technology regularly can identify areas of potential concern. In a survey of 2,000 HR and internal communications professionals as well as 2,000 employees, Firstup found that "more than half of employees admitted to feeling overwhelmed when receiving too much communication through too many channels at work," Alvino said. Productivity suffers as well, with employees admitting to "wasting 2.7 hours every working week dealing with the distractions of poorly executed corporate communications," she said.
Multiply that productivity loss by the number of employees on your payroll, and you'll quickly see the magnitude of this issue—not only for employees, but for your bottom line.
Weber said it's a good idea to audit your tech stack at least once a year and ask these questions:
- Does it reduce friction for our employees?
- Is this still adding value for us?
- Is there another tool we already use that would make this simpler?
Commit to Training and Ongoing Communication
If you're introducing new technology, whether a whole system or a single tool, make sure you're also providing sufficient training to help employees understand how to use it and how to most effectively incorporate it into their workday.
Don't assume that employees—even your "digital natives"—will just automatically know how to use these tools.
When introducing new technology, also be sure to explain the "why" behind it, Weber said. "If employees have visibility into how the technology serves the organization and they believe it makes their jobs easier, they will be quick to adopt it," he said.
Ongoing communication also requires seeking feedback and input. Weber recommended that HR leaders "do a listening tour to learn what tech the employees appreciate and which ones they resent."
However, Hanson noted that in competitive environments, employees may be hesitant to share tech-fatigue concerns. In this case, "HR leaders, employers and managers should take the initiative to shape practices and policies that minimize the ill effects of digital overload," she said.
Offer Downtime—Even Demand It
Managers can help employees by carving out "downtime" for them to focus on work that requires concentration and focus, Weber suggested. "In Slack, for example, people should be resetting their status as unavailable throughout the week as needed," he said. "Managers can model this behavior and normalize the need to be off communication tech for the good of individual well-being and team productivity."
Hanson suggested that organizations introduce rules of no working lunches or online lunch meetings—or try cutting back on recurring meetings.
Janine Nieuwoudt, head of global HR at HireRoad, a cloud-based talent management platform based in Arlington, Va., said her company has evaluated whether meetings are absolutely necessary and has eliminated those deemed to be simply "nice to have." That has allowed more time for value-added contributions, she noted. HireRoad also evaluated which tech apps are really required and reduced and consolidated the apps it uses.
Be Attuned to Remote Employees' Needs
Employees in remote environments may face different challenges in addressing tech fatigue. While remote environments are naturally more "tech-forward," Weber said, there are steps companies can take to minimize fatigue.
For example, 15Five has established "No Meeting Thursdays" to combat Zoom fatigue and allow people to do deeper work.
But whether employers and HR leaders are dealing with remote or onsite employees, Nieuwoudt warns against expecting employees—or managers—to self-manage. Employees may not have the authority to decide which meetings to attend, and managers may be so wrapped up in their day-to-day work that they're not attuned to what employees need.
That means HR leaders should be proactive to analyze, assess and address technology-related issues that are leading to employee fatigue and burnout.
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience.