Developing e-resilience

Gail Kinman, Almuth McDowall and the members of the Switched on Culture Research Group report from a conference.


Although technology has many benefits for individuals and organisations, it can also diminish quality of working and personal life. This conference built on the activities of the ‘Switched On Culture’ Research Group (SOCRG) and the BPS Work-life Balance Working Group to consider how developments in information and communication technology (ICT), and the ways in which people engage with it, can affect well-being. The SOCRG have recently developed the concept of ‘e-resilience’ that refers to the behaviours and environmental interactions that help individuals engage with ICT in a healthy and sustainable way. 

This well-attended conference included contributions by high-profile researchers, practitioners and industry experts. There was a great deal of discussion about the emerging concept of ‘e-resilience’, its application and wide-ranging potential for improving well-being. Topics covered during the day included: the future of work and the fast-changing nature and impact of the digital economy; the individual and organisational factors that may facilitate and hinder e-resilience; the role of individual differences (such as personality, job involvement, personal preferences for ICT engagement and person-environment fit) and demographic differences. We also considered the strategies currently available to help organisations and individuals manage technology use, their acceptability and effectiveness in particular contexts, and the need to develop multi-level initiatives that keep abreast of rapid change.

David D’Souza, Head of London CIPD, delivered a stimulating and visually engaging presentation that considered how technology might shape work in the future and how we need to ‘reinvent’ what we mean by work. David argued that we are attempting to manage the challenges posed by technology using ‘traditional’ ways of working, which is like ‘training a 6-year-old to darn socks’. We are failing to develop more appropriate practices that can help us manage the speed of technological change and the need for rapid response while retaining our humanity. Referring to ‘the Jurassic Park problem’, David argued that technology can do amazing things but we still need humans to set the guiding moral principles including the need for autonomy, personal choice and a well-rounded life. Otherwise, there is the risk that technology will manage us, rather than the other way round, and there is a fine line between using apps to help people interact more effectively in organisations, or use them to monitor what people are doing in a ‘Big Brother’ kind of way. David emphasised that learning how to access and share information in a different manner and the need to engage with social networking communities that challenge rather than confirm our thinking will ensure survival in the digital age. 

The next presentation, by Jean-Francois (Jeff) Stich from the University of Lancaster, considered the impact of virtual interactions at work on well-being from a person-environment fit perspective. Drawing on the findings of his research, Jeff argued that the mere volume of email that people receive and process does not predict stress. In fact, we differ markedly in what we consider to be email ‘overload’ and wellbeing depends upon the extent to which our email communication preferences and behaviours are congruent with the preferences of our co-workers.  The fact that the majority of people seem to be unaware of the email management preferences of their colleagues, in relation to volume and timing, suggests that insight into e-mail ‘etiquette’ is likely to improve the quality of working relationships and worker wellbeing. There are clear practical implications arising from this research, such as the need to actively raise awareness among technology users of their own preferences and those of others, rather than just leaving people to get on with it.

Richard MacKinnon, from the Future Work Centre, focused on the need to examine the use of technology within its evolving context. He emphasised the need for more insight into the healthy and efficient use of technology and offered some strategies that can be used to prevent overload. The need for further knowledge of individual differences and the skills required to manage ICT effectively was also highlighted as there is currently little guidance available. Richard is a strong advocate of targeted training and argued that workers often fail to use the functional potential of technology to their full advantage. He remarked on the paradox that the one issue that has changed work so fundamentally (i.e. technology) is often left to workers to self-manage, without appropriate support and development activities. In line with Jeff’s argument, Richard emphasised the potential for e-mail behaviours and expectations to intrude into the personal life of co-workers via work intensification and expectations of rapid response. He pointed out that some countries are considering introducing legislation, where employees are not required to engage with emails at certain times or locations. Although such interventions might be beneficial for some individuals, they may be ineffective or even damaging for others who favour greater flexibility.

Representing the SOCRG, Almuth McDowall and Gail Kinman introduced the emerging concept of e-resilience. Drawing on research conducted by themselves and Christine Grant, Cristina Quinones and Svenja Schlachter, the potential for ICT engagement to intensify work and blur work-life boundaries as well as enhance flexibility was highlighted. The pros and cons of existing individual and organisational strategies for managing technology and the implications of external (e.g. organisationally driven) and internal (e.g. job passion and involvement) in engaging with technology outside normal working hours were also discussed. The presentation drew on a survey recently conducted by the SOCRG with approximately 400 respondents across industries and organisations. The findings revealed that over half of organisations (57%) do not provide any guidance or training on how to switch off technology. Moreover, 40% of respondents think it is the employee’s role to control their engagement with ICT. More than 50% see managing ICT use as a shared responsibility and 10% as the employee’s sole responsibility. IT functions were most likely to be considered responsible for managing ICT use within organisations (32%), followed by line managers (23%). The findings indicated that improved communications and productivity were considered the key benefits of technology use, whereas reduced wellbeing and poor quality relationships at work were the most negative aspects. Tips and strategies were provided for individuals, supervisors and organisations that centred around better self-management, being mindful of others, and appropriate training and development.

The afternoon’s keynote speaker was Alison Maitland, who is a former Financial Times journalist and is the co-author of the book Future Work. In a well-received presentation, Alison discussed the key role of organisational culture in helping people to thrive in the digital world – a culture of autonomy rather than one of permission. Echoing David D’Souza’s views, she emphasised the need for a new model of work that is more appropriate to meet the challenges of the digital age. Alison highlighted the importance of agile/smart working arguing that, for many, work has become an activity rather than a place and the need to assess employee productivity and commitment from outcomes rather than physical presence. Outlining the TRUST principles for implementing better ways of working, Alison emphasised the need to trust your staff, reward results rather than hours, understand the business case for flexibility and start at the top by encouraging leaders to role model appropriate behaviours. The need to recruit managers for these skills was emphasised in order to develop an organisational culture that is fit for future work.

In the final talk of the conference, Emma Russell from Kingston University presented her wide-ranging research on how individual differences can influence engagement with email and the impact on wellbeing. Emma indicated that 70% of us reply to an email immediately after receiving it. She commented that there is an addictive element to email; like opening an unknown parcel, it triggers excitement as ‘we just want to know what is in it’. Further emphasising the addictive and potentially disruptive nature of email, Emma has found more than one person in six will continue to check their email even if they have an important deadline. Her research has also examined the extent to which personality can affect engagement with email; for example, more extravert individuals are excited by the stimulation that emails provide, whereas more neurotic people tend to become more anxious through email checking. Emma’s research has also highlighted a wide range of strategies that people use to manage emails, and will shortly be embarking on organisationally-focused research to explore the fit between organisational practices and people’s needs and preferences.

The conference provided an ideal opportunity to review current knowledge and practice and to stimulate new ideas in an area that is exceptionally fast-moving. We concluded that technology can both support and diminish well-being and that the outcomes depend, at least partially, on perceptions of control over engagement with ICT and the extent to which they are able to embrace change. Overall, the concept of ‘e-resilience’ seems to encompass the ability for individuals to be sufficiently self-aware to self-manage their technology use. Nonetheless, there is a general expectation for organisations to take some responsibility for helping employees manage technology in a healthy and sustainable way. The need to resist simplistic ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions when developing policy and practice regarding ‘appropriate’ technology use was emphasised. Some European countries are considering introducing legislation to limit engagement with work - with clear implications for ICT use. As yet there is no planned legislation in the UK, but many companies have introduced strategies such as ‘email free Fridays’, shutting the server down during public holidays or banning all internal email. The research discussed at this conference suggest that such a blanket approach to email management will fail. 

The final discussion concluded that a range of flexible options is required to suit individual needs and policies. It is also crucial to consider the needs and preferences of older workers who may feel overwhelmed by technological change and the need to multi-task, given the changing demographics in the working population. At the same time, practice should not solely rely on stereotypes of ‘digital natives’, or other groups, but consider people’s needs with a more open mind.  The importance of a multi-disciplinary approach was emphasised in order to gain further insight into the needs of employers and employees using a blend of technological, sociological and psychological expertise and creative research methodologies.  The need to carefully craft and subsequently evaluate interventions in a range of different working contexts and varied groups of employees is also evident. One issue is clear. We need to start managing technology, otherwise we remain in danger of technology managing us.

- Read more about the Switched On Culture Research Group.

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