'Intelligent workplace' tools, video calls create anxiety

The role of technology and automation in the so-called 'intelligent workplace' was the focus of a lively debate at a conference last week. Video conferencing was cited as a particular problem.

The COVID-19-driven shift to virtualization, automation and video communication is changing work. But the adoption of new tools to create what's sometimes called an "intelligent workplace," a catch-all term for digital and automated office processes, is not always for the better.

Vendors argue that office automation tools make employees more efficient. But they also make employees warier about their employers, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder and principal analyst at Deep Analysis.

"Whether we like to admit it or not, the vast majority of automation in the workplace is designed simply to get rid of people," Pelz-Sharpe said. Employees are "very suspicious of this." 

Pelz-Sharpe was among those speaking at the recent Digital Workplace Experience conference, hosted by Simpler Media Group Inc. In a different conference presentation, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, took another technology to task: video conferencing.

Video calls can make workers uncomfortable, Grant said.

"Knowing that other people are seeing your face heightens your concerns about your appearance, which is distracting,” and it creates a lot of stress, Grant said. That's especially true for women and newcomers to a firm, he noted.

Grant said the most underused tech is a phone call. People "might actually be better off turning the camera off," he said.

Voice calls beat video

Research shows that managers and workers get a more accurate reading of people's emotions if the camera is turned off, Grant said. "Tone of voice is a pure, more reliable signal" of what someone is feeling, he said.

Tone of voice is a pure, more reliable signal.
Adam GrantOrganizational psychologist, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Grant's perspective contradicts the push to an "intelligent workplace," which a separate panel broadly defined as a digital and connected office that also can account for employee preferences. 

The panel of industry experts seemed to be in agreement that the intelligent workplace is aspirational. Still, firms are making a pointed effort to create one, said Geetika Tandon, a managing director at Deloitte Consulting and a panelist.

Tandon said automation is trying to improve emotional support, administrative support and other aspects of employee experience. Firms are also making a pointed effort to respond to the "Great Resignation," she noted. The "Great Resignation" is the term given to the high quit rate levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deploying technology to improve employee experience "is easier to do than to change habits or to change people," Tandon said. 

But it is in the back office, Pelz-Sharp argued, where automation is the job threat. 

Until the pandemic, there was a rush to bring in technologies such as robotic process automation, which automates routine tasks, "and very little of that was to improve an employee's experience," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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