A technology crisis triggers a temporary band-aid reaction

Gugu Mkhize is the InSeta CEO

Gugu Mkhize is the InSeta CEO

Published Jul 14, 2022


Humanity, when faced with crises, resolutely demonstrates creativity and adaptability. Thus when Covid-19 became the first pandemic to confront the digitally connected world, we re-engineered work into Work From Home (WFH). An era now termed the new normal has arrived. A crisis triggers a temporary "band-aid" reaction. Over time our contextual response emerges by sharing experiences, which informs and improves our responses.

As we discovered, a home, being homely, is not (yet) an office environment. Homes are designed for family intimacy, relaxation and comfort. The temptation to leisurely work from bed in comfortable underwear became omnipresent, with embarrassing and reputational consequences. Working from a sofa or bed has added health or ergonomics consequences. Ergonomics refers to humankind's engagements with the human-made world.

The transport industry innovatively deployed telemetry systems which use behavioural science to influence driver behaviour positively. Similarly, by using digital technology, we can monitor WFH users' health to detect and even alert them of unnatural or awkward posture, which could cause strain.

After all, despite AI robotics, our staff remain the heartbeat of an organisation.

On the positive side, we witnessed increased productivity by staff engaging online all day without incurring time penalties due to travel. But work gradually became an around- the-clock activity as late-night emails inadvertently promoted competition amongst staff, ultimately nurturing unhealthy stress.

France, in 2017, required companies with 50 or more employees to establish hours when staff could neither send nor answer emails. This was for staff welfare to prevent burnout. This right-to-disconnect was a pre-pandemic initiative!

Thus we need to consider having a time-out when staff don't feel penalised for not being online. We call this no-screen time. Our sector must look at no screen time for staff to reflect and recharge.

Further, corporates now have a distributed workforce which, in turn, distributes the vulnerabilities. Not only do we need to monitor the security of our infrastructure, but we now have to monitor the health of our workforce. A computer network is as vulnerable as its weakest link, which is unsurprisingly the human. Humans get tired.

They become distracted, exposing themselves to phishing attacks or they mistakenly download malware. Unscrupulous villains are using a new threat called doxing, which is designed to coerce WFMers to do their bidding. Doxing is the act of threatening to publicly reveal previously private personal information about an individual through the Internet.

Davies was eloquent in his endearing poem, Leisure: "We have no time to stand and stare." Now, do we even have time to sit and think? We digitally charge from Zoom through MS Teams to taking a landline or a WhatsApp call, all while answering emails. Zoom evolved from an outlier video conferencing app into a global player, jumping from 10 million to over 300 million daily meeting participants.

Thus WFM and video conferencing has increased physiological and psychological factors such as Zoom fatigue, posture and eye-related problems. "Zoom fatigue" is our candidate for Oxford Word of the Year 2022.

There must be a productive discourse about our engagement with these new meeting platforms. One suggestion is that our sector investigates mandatory no-screen hours. Companies should implement a no-meeting day or a half-day so staff can catch up with the work they are required to do.

An extensive 11-country survey of 12,000 WFH respondents established that employees are experiencing social isolation. Some 25% of the respondents reported burnout, while 25% indicated depression. Others experienced sleep deprivation, poor physical health, challenges with family relationships and isolation from friends.

Of course, one must guard against the surveillance tools becoming Orwellian big brother tools which only employers can see. Be transparent. We remind that the pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. Yet, something must change.

Gugu Mkhize is the InSeta CEO, while Professor Colin Thakur is the InSeta Research Chair in Digitalisation at the Durban University of Technology.

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