Is Technology a Double-Edged Sword for Employees?

By Bill Leonard Dec 17, 2014
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While most information technology professionals, human resource practitioners and attorneys agree that every organization should have strong technology and Internet usage policies, disagreement arises on just how limited or expansive employee access to information systems should be.

Several recent studies have shown that increased access to online and mobile technology can be both good and bad for workers. According to a study conducted by the Toronto-based IT management consulting group Softchoice, released in November 2014, employees who have more access to technology and cloud applications tend to be happier and more productive than those who don’t.

“The deluge of mobile devices and cloud apps into our personal and professional lives has fueled a common perception that technology leads to overworked, disengaged staff," said Francis Li, vice president of information technology at Softchoice. “On the contrary, our research shows that technology, and cloud apps in particular, have the potential to play key roles in solving long-standing employee engagement challenges.”

For the Softchoice study, researchers surveyed 1,000 full-time workers in the United States and Canada. The survey examined the workers’ cloud-based application usage and asked them a variety of questions about their happiness and satisfaction at work.

Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of survey respondents who used cloud-based apps at work reported being happy in their jobs, compared to 19 percent of workers who don’t use apps. In addition, among respondents who used six or more cloud apps for work, 85 percent reported that they had an optimal work/life balance, compared to 59 percent of those who didn’t use apps.

“The study shows that there are clear advantages to enabling technology use and giving employees a choice on which apps they use; however, this must be done within the construct of a compliant and safe environment,” said Li.

Although the Softchoice study shows clear advantages to providing and possibly even increasing access to technology, other studies have concluded that too much access can be a bad thing. In fact, several researchers have coined the term “telepressure” to describe employees’ urges to respond immediately to work-related e-mails and also to use mobile technology and applications to work and stay in contact with contact supervisors.

A study conducted by researchers at Northern Illinois University (NIU) collected data from 303 workers who reported how often they responded to e-mails on weekends, vacation days and sick days. The researchers concluded that employees who fixated on responding to e-mails reported poorer sleep quality and were more likely to miss work for health reasons,

“Some workers have trouble cognitively letting it go,” said Larissa K. Barber, an assistant professor of psychology at NIU.

She added that an obsession with responding to e-mail and staying connected could also reduce employees’ productivity. Instead of diving into bigger work tasks, they become focused on responding to e-mail and texts.

The NIU study did not find a strong link between telepressure and employees’ personalities, instead finding that workplace culture seemed to predict the level of telepressure.

“At some organizations, workers are getting implicit and explicit cues, ’This is what you should be doing to be a good employee,’ ” she said.

A report released in September 2013 by the American Psychological Association (APA) had similar results to the NIU study, finding that 81 percent of U.S. workers check e-mail outside of work, with more than a third reporting that they check job-related e-mail several times a day outside of work hours. However, the APA study reached a slightly different conclusion on the impact that increased access to communication technology had on work-related stress.

While the APA report found workers did feel pressure to remain connected during nonwork hours, more than half of the respondents (56 percent) to the APA survey said communication technology and online access helped them to be more productive in their jobs, and 53 percent said that technology gives them more flexibility.

“People are often given the advice to unplug if you want to achieve work/life balance and recharge,” said David W. Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the APA. “While there’s no question that people need downtime to recover from work stress and avoid burnout, that doesn’t necessarily require a complete ‘digital detox.’ For many people, the ability to stay connected can add value to their work and personal lives. We’re learning that not everyone wants to power down, and that’s OK.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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