Technology is going be one of the greatest challenges facing leaders over the coming years. Not in the histrionic way that expensive consultancies love to talk about it – “If your company doesn’t bring about comprehensive digital transformation this instant and appoint a robot to the board, it’s going to be overtaken by rodents” – but in a far duller, yet far more pervasive way, which humans are only just beginning to wrestle with.
I describe this dull, but pervasive, problem as “systems fatigue’. I would like to think that I was first to coin the term, but I know that’s unlikely. It’s incredibly difficult to be original. If I Googled it – I haven’t because I don’t want to shatter my own illusions – I would no doubt find that countless people are already discussing it all over the web.
What is systems fatigue?
Systems fatigue relates to the idea that technology is evolving at a rate that humans cannot keep up with, but it goes a stage further by implying that it will ultimately wear us out. Take a straightforward example. Passwords. When passwords began, we probably had a single password that we used on every website, which was simple and easy to remember – often the name of our child or pet. Next, companies started getting hacked and forcing us to make our passwords longer and more complicated – throw in a number here, a special digit there. Then, of course, we ended up having to change our passwords for different sites at different times, with the result that we ended up losing all track of which passwords we had created. The upshot is that logging in to anything these days is like breaking the Enigma code.
Now, we are even advised – by our computers, who else? – to use utterly immemorable ‘strong codes’ every time we log in. Only someone who is a mathematical genius would ever be able to remember one of these things. That is why they are very effective, of course, because they sensibly remove emotional, predictable and pet-loving humans from the password-setting processes. But what happens next time we want to log into our account? Before we can access it, we face a long, wearisome journey, involving a password reset link, and possibly identity questions (note that one of the questions will probably be about the name of your first pet rather than the model of your first cell phone). In future, we will undoubtedly have to go through the same process over and over again because we can never remember that despicable password. No wonder we’re feeling fatigued.
Of course, some people (or algorithms, depending on who you ask) will say that the answer to the problem is biometrics. Use your thumbprint and all will good. But what happens when you can’t remember if you used your thumb or your forefinger, from your left or right hand, to set your ID and you try them all in any case, but the computer still doesn’t like them?
Also, it’s one thing to use systems. But what happens when we actually have to start managing them – properly, I mean? Data regulation rules in Europe mean that we’re already held responsible for data in ways that most of us haven’t even got our heads around yet. So, what’s going to happen once we’re actually in charge of our own algorithms and cobots? Today, there’s a lot of hysteria around algorithms and cobots taking our jobs. What we should actually fear is having jobs where we are personally held responsible for what the wretched things get up to. The prospect is terrifying. No one wants to end up in prison because they were in charge of a malfunctioning cobot that messed up the lights at a busy traffic intersection in a smart city, leading to a tragic loss of life.
On the run from a saber-toothed tiger?
I cannot say that technology has taken much work off me over the past decade – but it has certainly added to it. Dealing with a constant influx of emails (I’m as guilty as the next person of sending them, though), navigating new systems and resetting passwords takes up a lot of my time. And, even when I’m not focused on my phone or my computer, technology is always there – sending me notifications and pinging to let me know that someone has been in touch. The result is that I’m in a continuous state of high alert, which is taking its toll on my health.
One of my friends puts it this way. She says that the effect of technology is to make us feel that we are on the run from a saber-toothed tiger – all of the time. But who wants to live their life with the feeling that a prehistoric felid is constantly snapping at their heels?
Already people are becoming aware of the negative health impacts of technology – too long spent sitting at desks and looking at screens and not enough time out in the sunshine, diminishing human contact and the mentally debilitating feeling of being “always on”. Furthermore, these problems will not be solved by the rise of “virtual offices” and being able to see avatars of our colleagues. Despite what the evangelists say, technology is not the answer to everything. In fact, over the coming years, managing the negative impact of technology is going to become an organization-wide, and possibly society-wide, challenge, with significant implications for the workforce.
I predict that we will see:
- Talented knowledge workers turning their backs on jobs and careers that involve anything but the most limited interaction with technology.
- An increase in wi-fi-free areas – people will deliberately seek out vacation destinations where there is absolutely no chance of anyone, or anything, using technology to get in touch.
- A rise in the number of people being signed off work with technology-related stress because they cannot keep up with the new systems that are being imposed on them and do not want responsibility for algorithms that they can neither understand nor control.
- More rules around when and where we are allowed to communicate with other people using technology. France has already led the way in this with its labor law that gives employees the right to disconnect from email once their working day has ended.
Technology is certainly going to change the workplace – in many of the ways that experts predict. It’s also going to change workers – in ways that experts are not yet paying enough attention to. So, when companies embark on those massive digital transformation programs that will save their businesses from being overtaken by rodents, they need to remember one important fact. Without a workforce, there is no such thing as work – and ultimately there is only so much technology that anyone can take.