It’s amazing how intolerant we are of any delay in the reaction times of the technology we use. We complain about our phones or computers being ‘laggy’. And there’s nothing more annoying than being timed out from a server or getting the ‘not responding’ message. New research by the IPA, commissioned by Acas, reveals that there are in fact two time lags when it comes to the use of technology at work:

  1. The natural lag between the development of technology and take up by organisations, and
  • The ‘human lag’ between the introduction of new technology at work and the way management practices respond

The technology lag

In recent months there have been a lot of media stories along the lines of ‘the robots are coming’ which predict that the fourth industrial revolution will put a large number of jobs at risk. However, a growing consensus seems to suggest that, in the words of LSE’s Leslie Willcocks, “there are a lot of opportunities to compliment human skills rather than replace them”. In other words, we may be facing a period of very challenging adaptation rather than outright revolution.

When I was starting out in my working life, people came to work to use the latest technology, such as computers and mobile phones. Today most people have better equipment at home than at work. This technological lag between cutting edge and organisational take-up can be frustrating at times but it does, in theory, give us a breathing space to adapt our management practices to suit new working practices. But do we make best use of this breathing space?

In one of the case studies in the new research, district nurses at an NHS Trust were given iPads to help speed up administrative duties and spend more time with patients. The iPad project had been running for several years and by the time distribution was under way, some new starters were impatient to get their hands on the labour saving devices. But although the technology had definite benefits, such as doing away with unnecessary paperwork, it also presented new challenges, for example, restricting the amount of time for social interaction with colleagues.

Of particular interest to Acas, of course, is the impact new technology is having and is likely to have on employment relations. Our analysis shows that there is a ‘human lag’ as well as a technology lag and that this is one that needs to be significantly narrowed in order to avoid unnecessary problems at work.


The human lag       

So what should managers be looking out for when it comes to planning for and adapting to new technology? The new research highlight some key themes. For example:


  • Technology can give people more autonomy – a perquisite of good work that fosters wellbeing – but it can also lead to more management monitoring and surveillance. If tasks are driven by technology, as on the shop floor at Jaguar Land Rover, then it’s very easy to collect data on exactly how each individual is performing.


  • Technology can simplify tasks but also fuel work intensification as labour saving devices can lead to increased productivity targets. There may also be a blurring of the boundaries between work and home with workers unable to switch off.


  • Technology often changes the way we communicate. Some commentators are worried about an over-reliance on email, for example, and a loss of one-to-one interpersonal skills. Where machinery takes a more leading role there is also the impact of having less people around – as marked by the ‘growing silence’ on some parts of Jaguar’s production line.


  • Technology can challenge and re-enforce cultural and normative value There is some evidence of algorithms being used to manage tasks rather than relying on line managers. In theory, this has advantages – for example, unconscious bias in recruitment processes can be ironed out. However, the algorithms may only be as free of bias as the people who program them

  • Technology is changing the impact work has on our physical and mental health. The general view seems to be that technology is helping our physical health, by making it safer, but potentially damaging our mental health. Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey says this is because “the employer has in effect invaded the psychological space that used to be your own”.

There are clearly real advantages to introducing new ways of working – such as the ‘virtual reality cave’ at Siemens that helps improve product design by envisaging how they will look in 3D or the robots used by Jaguar to create their car frames. However, there are also drawbacks and employers may need to think these through a little more. For example, the iPads at the NHS Trust were popular with the nurses but being able to process more patients was always likely to mean more ambitious targets which, if unchecked, can lead to greater work intensification and stress.       

As the report concludes, bridging the human lag is not unsurmountable. It requires us to rediscover and reimagine many of the key building blocks of good work and good workplace relations, such as forward planning, employee involvement and a deeper understanding of the wellbeing of the whole person.