Technology is Bad—and Good
We must manage technology, so it works for and not against us, says David Ayling, the former owner of load cell manufacturer Straightpoint, and now president of FAD Equipment Store.
I read an article recently that said 83% of U.S. workers suffer from work-related stress, with 25% saying their job is the number one stressor in their lives. They’re worrying numbers given how many hours a week—in a lifetime, even—we all spend at work, especially here in the U.S. But I wasn’t surprised when I read these stats. If you Googled the subject, yourself, you’d find many similar reports and articles, proving that we’re a super-stressed nation.
Trawl the internet again in six months and the numbers will be the same, or probably worse. The problems of the day—inflation, logistics, workforce, Ukraine, pandemic, etc.—aren’t going to go away overnight, meaning the stresses of getting through life, especially with a mortgage and a family, are only going to grow. Adding to the perfect storm are favorable trading conditions in multiple markets, which means many businesses and individuals are in greater demand from their customers and superiors than ever before.
Technology improves our lives but can be the cause of great stress.
Central to everything we do is technology. Tech tells us what’s happening in the world, drives our product innovation, manages our communications, and travels with us in the multiple devises we carry on our person and in our bags these days. Our laptops, watches, cell phones, and tablets are bristling with apps and programs that ping us constantly. An email is followed by a call, which is followed by a WhatsApp, which is followed by another email, which is followed by an alert from Facebook, which is followed by an email chasing up an email you haven’t had a chance to read yet. Then your watch tells you it’s time to up your steps before a meeting request comes in at the same time as two other meetings. And it’s only 6:30am. You’re not due to start work for another 30 minutes. Traffic is bad too.
Slaves to tech
It seems that nobody is spared. White-collar and blue-collar workers’ lives are equally governed by technology. Even on the shop floor, which used to be a sanctuary away from it, tech is everywhere. Everything is digitalized. Someone who used to pick rivets out of a box and bang them into place has now got to scan codes on an iPad at every step and track each blow of the hammer. The guy or gal on the other side of the workshop, meanwhile, used to drill holes by eye and, on a good day, be more productive than on a bad. That was ok, everyone thought. Now, technology is reporting back to the C-suite, informing management exactly how many holes it is possible to drill each hour, flagging it up when the worker falls short.
We can even connect load cells to smart watches these days.
“Drill faster, you!” they say.
This is an important point because people aren’t machines and it would be a mistake to assume that just because technology is improving and shining a spotlight on our shortcomings, that we must become more machine-like as human beings. It’s not just on the shop floor that we’re now expected to be more robotic; it’s the same for someone at a desk. Where it was once acceptable to get around to an email, that email is now chased by another email, a WhatsApp, then an angry phone call.
Since when did it become ok to ask, “Did you get my message?” only an hour after sending it? Why is it now acceptable to send a WhatsApp saying, “Check your inbox”?
I think there are two contributory factors to acknowledge about the pressure-cooker we find ourselves in:
- Work didn’t used to be as stressful.
- We didn’t used to understand stress as much as we do today.
In the olden days
I’ll provide some context by taking you back to when I started work in 1986. Here’s what a non-tech quoting process looked like:
- Visit the customer and give a demo with the kit in my trunk.
- Leave them with a smile and a pile of literature.
- Find the nearest telephone box.
- Dictate a follow-up letter to an office-based secretary detailing the visit and products on offer.
- Wait for the letter to be delivered by mail, read, digested, discussed, and considered.
- Telephone the potential customer asking if they had any further questions or comments.
- Update paper account notes with a Yes, No, Maybe, Call Back, etc., depending on protocols.
The process would take at least a week, even if we were pulling out all the stops. As pagers, fax machines, smart phones, and laptops—probably in that order—started to become part of an equipment salesperson’s toolkit, we started to (d)evolve towards a point where we now demonstrate, quote, follow-up, and chase-up, with multiple customers every hour.
Email was probably the biggest game-changer because it cut to seconds what might’ve previously taken hours. Love it or hate it, email now serves as a trigger movement in so many roles: zero emails mean there’s nothing to do and 100 means there’s loads. WhatsApp is now favored by some salespeople, especially to contact long-term, regular clients, but this only adds to the immediacy and, therefore, stress of communications, because WhatsApp is there in someone’s hand, even when they’re checking in with their children after school.
Remember when Dolly Parton sang about “9 to 5” back in 1980:
“Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living
Barely getting by, it's all taking and no giving”
Little did she know.
A lot has changed since Dolly Parton sang "9 to 5" to us.
The world spins
We should talk about geography as well—for two reasons:
- Certain countries fuel stressful lives more than others.
- Global supply chains never sleep.
I’ll explain: I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and have spent prolonged periods of time in the U.S., Europe, Middle East, Far East, and many places in between. We deserve a lot of credit here in the U.S. for our work ethic, but in some companies too much is expected of people. We don’t get a lot of vacation time and people in California demand too much of their colleagues in New York, even if they finish work three hours before them.
By contrast, I’ve spent a lot of time in Spain, where a “mañana, mañana” (“tomorrow, tomorrow”) approach is more often taken. In other words, they recognize that a customer will probably wait until the morning for a quote, and someone can wait for their colleague to return to their desk tomorrow before getting the information they need to advance a task.
The other reality to acknowledge is that technology has made the world a smaller place. Time differences are being blurred and global supply chains don’t sleep. I remember in the heyday of my Straightpoint ownership, I was dealing with inquiries from San Francisco and New Zealand. It meant that I was frequently reacting to technology-enabled questions and comments while I was having my dinner, in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping, and then before having my breakfast. You don’t have to search the blogosphere very long to find articles I’ve written about suffering from burnout as a result.
Business owners and managers must take responsibility for making sure that their employees don’t head the same way. It isn’t realistic to expect a person, young or old, to be as responsive as they are being asked to be for an entire career. Think how many hours a week (sing it, Dolly) I might have been asked to work back in 1986 compared to a salesperson starting out of university today. It’s probably double. Where I could’ve come home and not thought about work until the following morning, today’s new starter will have to excuse themselves from dinner or evening television to send emails and respond to their phone bleeping. That’s even without maintaining their social media presence.
(Individual responsibility comes into it too, in terms of protecting personal time, and turning off alerts, for example, but that’s perhaps an article for another day.)
All this mind-bending stress is caused by technology working as it's intended. When it goes wrong, it’s a different kind of stress altogether. When your WiFi goes down, do you take the opportunity to take a break, go for a walk, or make a nice cup of coffee? No, you likely sit there cursing, banging the desk, and repeatedly trying to refresh the connection until it works. When you can’t find an email, do you calmly search for it or politely ask someone to resend? No, you likely become frantic and blame the technology for letting you down. Even if that technological process has saved you hours that day, you forget it instantly.
Imagine a world without email.
Digital stress in this sense is real and can be brought on by any negative interactions or experiences in emails, texts, social media, webinars, etc.
Food for thought
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a big fan of technology. In my last blog, I wrote about Sky Q, a subscription-based television and entertainment service operated by British satellite television provider Sky, as a part of its operations in Austria, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and in the UK. I also love my smart phone and the technology that drives Crosby Straightpoint and other companies. Technology empowers this equipment store too. But we’ve got to be careful that it doesn’t become detrimental to our personal and professional lives.
It's always urgent somewhere.
I want to see canteens and breakout booths where people talk, not just look at their phones. I want to see people be patient again with suppliers and clients. I want to see guys and gals work hard, strive for career progression, give their all for a cause, but go home to relax with family. I want to see tech give us tools like computer numerical control lathes, but not turn people into robots.
It’s evident that technology is bad—and good. You can argue the percentages of each, but we’ve got to all fight the battle to make sure that it works for and not against us.