Zahir Irani: The digital revolution has a dark side – and civil service leaders need to ensure their staff aren't left isolated

As departments go digital, civil service leaders will have to grapple with the physical disconnection that more flexible ways of working can bring

By Zahir Irani

11 Nov 2015

More and more people are working in 'bubbles' of IT. A dramatic reduction of the digital divide and initiatives to transform government through providing more IT-based services has been accompanied by more flexibility, more remote working – and more dependency on software to make anything happen. It's a trend which is only going to accelerate in workplaces generally. The United States, as one example, already has an estimated 100 million "mobile" workers with no fixed office.
This physical disconnection, and the new kinds of relationship involved, brings particular leadership and management challenges. The ground has shifted for even the basics of management – from providing day-to-day direction, to retaining control and keeping a sense of team and work culture when people don’t regularly work in close proximity to each other.
The 'always on' culture has led to productivity improvements through the increased access to and speed of working athat IT brings. But it's also led to a step change in the pressure that people – at any level – feel in terms of the need for an instant response, instant action. This is a perpetual circle: "we want", so "we deliver" for others. Working in a digital bubble can create a sense of isolation, with fewer natural opportunities for social interaction undermining team-working, motivation and the time traditionally spent on making employees feel appreciated and committed.

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Less physical time together also means a restriction on creativity – think of those chance conversations and the sharing of experiences and ideas that can lead to different approaches and innovation. Essentially, you risk becoming limited by your own knowledge and experience. On a practical level, remote working even brings greater health and safety risks. The employer still has a duty of care, wherever the member of staff may be working from, and managers need to be conscious of assessing any risks to ensure that they comply with their own policies and procedures, as well as the law.

These kinds of problems need to be acknowledged: it can't be assumed that it's going to be business as usual. There are some straightforward ways to deal with these challenges. IT might seem all-pervasive, but there are many ways in which the technology is actually under-used, including video-conferencing and other collaborative tools which can replace meetings involving participants from different locations.

The most practical, effective IT skills will need to be taught and refreshed if the civil service is to embrace to opportunities of new technology. This kind of training needs to stress the importance of limits on the use of IT; when the smartphone should be switched off; how to set an example to staff in terms of use of IT out of working hours; and an emphasis on when face-to-face or telephone working would be a better choice.

Management research increasingly points to a "dark side" of IT which can erode performance due to the associated complexity, stresses, and addiction to streams of updates – often for marginal gain. Senior civil servants in particular need educating in the power of new media – not to rule it out as a "risk" or see it as a free-for-all, but to appreciate its specific possibilities for improving communication, engagement and appropriate forms of transparency, often at significantly higher levels of speed.

Leaders and managers need to think differently about what constitutes the "social glue" for their teams. For many staff, especially younger generations who haven’t experienced more traditional working environments, the independence of working with IT can just feel effective and efficient, without real recognition of the social cost. But for people who need to work with those younger staff, it can be more of a problem, and more focus and support is needed on developing emotional intelligence, empathy and people management skills.

It's worth looking at those particular roles where cohesion is an important part of day-to-day responsibility. Those leaders should play a part in monitoring IT use and setting out principles for what’s "healthy" in and outside of work hours, and to give guidance on when face-to-face contact is needed. There’s a neat fit with the issue of our ageing population – older members of the workforce can also make a significant difference, and, with more over-60s at work, those staff can play an important role in acting as coaches, mentors and the social glue for engaging and supporting younger people. 

With more everyday tasks taking place in isolation, work spaces need to become more natural hubs for encouraging face-to-face communications and socialising. They need to be less functional and more community-oriented. It's happening in the private sector at a pace, with a backlash against the big, open-plan offices which are unpopular with employees, and now considered soulless.
The changes brought about by IT have been fundamental, and all the positive gains have sometimes obscured a creeping sense of discomfort at how the new ways of working affect our day-to-day experience of life at work. Now's the time for managers to step in and show they can get a grip on the implications of digital working before the benefits begin to lose some of their shine.

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