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Workplace technology puts strain on organizational policies

March 22, 2013
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There is no doubt that technology is changing the way we work. In fact, it is changing things so fast that it is difficult to keep up with. I’m not only talking about how work gets accomplished, although that is pretty amazing. I’m talking about how it is affecting behavior in the workplace and all of the places that work is done and where information goes. Of course, when you start talking about behavior, you get into culture and that leads to practices and, eventually, regulations, etc. It becomes another topic for human resources to address.

Why would HR need to be involved? Because like every other business practice, you have a mix of perceptions of how certain matters should be handled. One would think most of this is a matter of common sense. However, that never seems to get us all going down the same path. Then there is always that group of employees that sees opportunities or shortcuts that lead to questionable behavior. Someone eventually pushes the envelope too far and rules have to be made, communicated, monitored and addressed.

Most organizations by now have HR policies about using company equipment only for company matters. However, if one were to check, most of these policies have not been updated in some time or republished to let staff know what the rules are. This process of managing HR and information technology rules is a bit like when organizations tried to write dress codes and stay on top of trends and practices. This is pretty tough, considering how fast styles change and how the work force turns over.

Where the dress code may affect corporate or organization image, the impact of a single individual is limited. Not so with the potential for mismanaged technology.

Use of technology and the associated practices are permeating our lives, and often we don’t see the implications. We also have the double-edged sword: The organization wants more done with less people in a shorter period of time, so it provides labor-saving technology (cell phones, laptops, tablets) that can go anywhere in the world, can be integrated and made even more versatile with special programs and apps. The organization likes this “tethered employee” when it is getting production, but gets “bent out of shape” when the tools are used inappropriately.

The organization fails to recognize that very few people will carry two of everything so they don’t use the tools for personal use. Sometimes they actually get assistance from the IT group to allow personal equipment to accept organization calls, e-mails, calendars, etc., to stay in compliance with hardware rules.

In reality, misuse of the hardware is often of little consequence, with exception of tying up lines and adding minutes to the phone bill. Even these issues are losing emphasis with the continued reduction of cost and increased volume capabilities.

The real issue is information: How does the company control and manage it and assure that the new options bombarding employees every day or shared among coworkers aren’t having an adverse impact on what is being done with the company’s information and systems? It often raises other issues like chain-of-command, confidentiality, timeliness of disclosure, etc.

Then there are the typical HR issues such as when is the employee working and how does it impact wage/hour regulations? New practices regarding recruiting, background checks and employee relations as it pertains to social media are becoming important regulatory issues in the discussion of tools and working locations outside a factory or office building. There also are employees who prefer to use their own equipment for business because they can tailor it to their personal needs and it may be better than what the organization furnishes with tight budgets.

The more you dig into this topic, the more convoluted it gets. It may not even be possible to clearly say who is an employee and who is a self-employed contactor when you begin to look at people who have variable schedules and often work from home — a trend that has multiple values but also has drawbacks, as some CEOs are starting to recognize.

Trying to change this practice will be a messy business. This is also true of many of the technology practices: Once started, they are hard to modify or reverse.

The whole arena of behavior and technology is one where the company won’t be able to say, “We’ve looked into it, found the best practice, and here is what we are going to do,” and be done with it. It will be one that has a new wrinkle almost monthly. It will be one that will snowball because of the easy way a new tool, app or practice can be communicated to a whole groups of people within minutes.

So what should be done? I think this is one of those policy areas where a team approach is very worthwhile. The team should include an HR executive, an IT executive, a line manager or two, and perhaps a PR person who will need to manage the usual public matters but maybe also have responsibility to monitor the social media arena.

Start with the review of what is in place and bring it current with an eye on regulations and business operations. You may not be able to implement a new policy in one fell swoop; it may require a staged approach with appropriate communication, depending on how much change is involved. Then the process should involve a quarterly practice review with an organized agenda so that a comprehensive and organized effort to stay on top of this matter is put in place.

You’ll be able to disband this committee when technology stops changing.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal of P3HR Consulting and Services LLC in Grand Rapids.

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