Since starting my technological journey in the mid-1970s, there have been considerable developments and some success. Historically, technology (or computing as it used to be referred) was developed for the sake of it. Underlying the developmental agenda was the need to have more memory and do things faster, with the implication that this will enhance our lives, thereby adding commercial and societal value.
Consequently, the perplexing question from a systems designer perspective was “How can the natural lag in the development and use of appropriate applications capitalise on the technological advancements?” Or “Is entropy endemic in our strategy of technology development?”
Too often, the analysis of the effectiveness of any operational system is far too complicated and theoretical. The failure of IT systems to deliver what is expected is blamed on a raft of excuses: lack of funding; inadequate specification; lack of resources; unexpected integration issues, etc.
The reality is that, in many cases, IT systems are forced upon ill-prepared organisations as a way of becoming more efficient. Being foisted upon users is not the best way of ensuring effective integration of a new system within an organisational culture. It has long been conjectured that the success of any new IT system as a facilitator can only be effectively achieved if its introduction is willingly adopted and endorsed. People do not like enforced change.
So, what’s changed? The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to change in a way that has meant they not only want technology to help them, they need it - both socially and in their working lives. The pandemic has given us a brief opportunity to see if people have as symbiotic a relationship with technology as we would like to support our remote working and living lifestyles.
Clearly, the dependence on an effective infrastructure that gives the requisite bandwidth to all parts of the country into which the remote working is dispersed underpins everything. Without the ability to work remotely, transparently, it is difficult to see how numerous platforms distributed to remote workstations can be relied upon to support extant working practices.
It may be stating the obvious, but the ability to successfully transition from an office environment to remote working is flawed - irrespective of the investment made in IT office systems - if communication speeds are slow or unreliable.
Most working environments are based on teamwork. A working environment where workers are inundated with emails rather than talking creates pressure, whereas verbal communication creates a better understanding of and context for the reasons behind the interaction. Less formality during an already stressful time is welcomed; the practice of replying-all is not. An inbox full of copious emails often results in information overload and, worse still, important information being overlooked.
Video conferencing platforms, like Zoom, rely on good connectivity and etiquette. Seeing a professional person precariously balancing on a bed, or staircase, whilst having a stray pet wandering in front of the camera does not give the professional environment one would normally have. Having the camera switched-off because one is inappropriately dressed (or not at all) doesn’t provide the requisite atmosphere for developing an effective distance-based relationship. Nor does visibly communicating with someone else on a mobile during a scheduled meeting.
Similarly, having the microphone on when not directly contributing to the meeting is also not conducive to a constructive working relationship: background noise, talking on a mobile phone, or simply hearing the click of someone typing a social media message can interfere with the experience. Participant respect is integral to future working relationships post-pandemic.
It is often forgotten that working online is still working. Being productive is increasingly important when online meetings abound that intrude into your social environment. Too often, meetings are scheduled for the sake of having them as almost a tick-box activity, rather than having a focused agenda with set objectives. In many ways, technology has made it too easy to arrange meetings, leaving invitees feeling obliged to attend simply because they can.
Effective communication is very important. Technology facilitates the process; it does not replace the preparation required in amending operational processes to ensure that it is effective. Minor adjustments to best practice would significantly improve the value offered by technology.
Assessing effectiveness of working relationships is also about control and assessing performance. Are people performing as they say they are? This is clearly heavily dependent on trust and existing relationships. In the short term, the impact of remote working has been accepted because of necessity. As time progresses and arrangements possibly become more permanent, the need for effective control of working environments will become paramount.
Gaining accurate, relevant data to assess performance is going to be key. Gathering information without jeopardising personal integrity or invading user privacy whilst working at home will not be easy. Using data collection systems that are not fully integrated into the working practices may not truly represent day-to-day difficulties. And, switching staff cameras on to watch every movement during the day is just not going to work!
Gaining the right data in order make a judgement or assessment might not be possible, either technically or ethically, let alone accurate. Restrictions of system integration may not enable the data to be acquired and fear of legal challenges regarding its appropriation may indeed outweigh any benefits.
So, where are we?
The short term was all about necessity. However, as this situation has progressed, it is clear that a considerable amount of time has been spent (wasted) managing situations retrospectively because they were not planned properly at the outset. Business working procedures have fluctuated depending on stages of lockdown. The indecision of when - or indeed, if - there is a return to the office causes further uncertainty and confusion, as the transition to and from the two environments is not conducive to effective working relationships.
This observational commentary provides a minor insight into what many people have experienced. It is clear that our operational procedures for using technology need to be considered if the synergetic relationship we want is to be achieved. Management need to revisit their operational procedures for disaster recovery on a scale nobody thought possible. This pandemic has highlighted some major flaws/disconnects in the way technology is used. It certainly doesn’t appear that we have mastered the use of technology.
In addition to infrastructure investment, corporations need to develop the working practices to capitalise on what we have, before investing in any more major changes. Let’s try and live with Moore’s Law!