During November 2021 alone 4.5 million people quit their jobs—the highest number on record. The pandemic work experience encouraged many employees to draw a line in the sand between what’s important (family, flexibility, and free time) and what’s not (toxic work cultures that lead to exhaustion, mistakes and ultimately burnout.) Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) have particularly felt the strain of office life with 97 percent wanting a hybrid or full-time remote working model (compared with 79 percent of white knowledge workers in the U.S.)
Digital tech was instrumental in creating the always-on model of work. For instance, the average office worker checks their email 74 times a day, creating a never-ending game of email whack-a-mole. However, that was the last generation of digital tech. There is a new generation that has the potential to remake work in more humanizing ways.
“Smart tech” is an umbrella term we coined for advanced digital technologies that make decisions for people and instead of people. It includes artificial intelligence (AI) and its subsets and cousins, such as machine learning, natural language processing, smart forms, chatbots, robots, and more. Its use is skyrocketing and it is being embedded in every functional area of company life from HR to communications, accounting and service delivery.
Smart tech is currently best at doing rote tasks like answering the same questions over and again online or automatically reconciling budgets with real-time numbers. When companies find the sweet spot between smart tech and people, it creates what we call the “dividend of time.” This new time can be used to do things that only people can and should do: build relationships, tell stories, and solve problems. This is also time that can be used to reduce burnout and re-humanize workplaces — but only if it is implemented carefully and strategically.
Using smart tech well isn’t a technological challenge but a leadership imperative. The C-Suite will be making choices about when, where and how to use smart tech. For instance, they can choose to institute “bossware” surveillance technology to track employees activities throughout the day. Or they can use software like CultureX to remind employees to stretch and move and take breaks. They can grab smart tech products off -the-shelf without asking whether and how the system may be biased against women and people of color, or they can use software like UInclude that has anti-bias DNA built right into the company. UInclude drafts job announcements based on extensive research and data that increases the quality and diversity of job applicants. Why is this so important to this particular tech company? Because UInclude was founded by three women of color who have made reducing bias in hiring a core principle of their work.
Here are a few ways company leaders can use smart tech to improve work and workplace cultures:
Invest in online chatbots. Chatbots are online conversational interfaces. They are the fastest growing use of smart tech by organizations and the least expensive way to begin using the technology. They are available 24/7 to answer questions like “When is your store open?” and “Where are you located?” Chatbots relieve staff from constant interruptions. The addition of chatbots allows front line staff can shift their focus to problem-solving, empathy, and ultimately inspiring repeat customers.
Improve workflow. Workflow bottlenecks are enormous sources of inefficiency and frustration for workers. “Intelligent virtual assistants” can schedule meetings without the back and forth that even a tool like Doodle involves by regularly cruising through participant’s files, correspondence, and calendars. Poorly designed meetings are also a huge organizational time suck. Meetings, particularly those that happen back-to-back, can be petri dishes for miscommunication and microaggressions as well as create stress if people talk too much or if they don’t engage enough. Otter.AI is among the many smart tech tools that can help make meetings more efficient. It provides voice to text transcripts for meetings. It can also provide metrics on what percentage of airtime participants took up to help managers facilitate more balanced conversations. Smart tech products can also help make meetings more inclusive by automating captioning and language translation.
Improve physical health. Smart tech can support physical safety and health by monitoring environmental risk factors, tracking worker health indicators, altering job profiles and ways of working that improve physical health, and nudging workers to healthy habits and behaviors. For example, smart tech can encourage work-life boundaries, and encourage employees to move, take screen breaks, and stretch. It’s good for workers and organizations to keep everyone healthy.
Smart tech is not a panacea for improving work or workplaces. However, when used carefully and strategically, when piloted to understand its effect on workers, it can create new time that can be used to re-humanize work and workplaces.
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Image credit: Pavel Danilyuk via Pexels
Beth Kanter is an internationally recognized thought leader and trainer in digital transformation and well-being in the nonprofit workplace. Named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and recipient of the NTEN Lifetime Achievement Award, she has over three decades of experience in designing and delivering training programs for nonprofits and foundations. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Allison Fine is among the nation’s pre-eminent writers and strategists on the use of technology for social good. She is the co-author of The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human Centered in an Automated World. In addition, she is the author of the award-winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, co-author with Beth Kanter of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit, and Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World. She is a highly sought-after keynote speaker for conferences around the world. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.