Brett Daniel

HR and business leaders should be mindful of the potential downstream consequences of introducing technology into the workplace, especially without workers’ input.

Unsurprisingly, workers’ thoughts and feelings about technology in the workplace are a mixed bag. This is according to the Worker Identity Research Collaboration (WIRC), a qualitative field research study headed up by Martha Bird, ADP’s chief business anthropologist, and her research partner, Shelley Sather. Twenty-four participants voiced their thoughts and feelings as part of the study.

“Our participant collaborators shared their perspectives on grappling with technology and digital platforms in the workplace,” Bird said. “We heard from a rideshare driver, a doctor, a news reporter and others about various technology-related topics, including automation, social media, staying relevant as a worker amid technological change and tangible and abstract work experiences mediated by technology. The responses are timely and fascinating.”

Machines: Dignity and alienation

According to the study, despite their capacity to be a force for good, machines can strip workers of their dignity and alienate them from their work. This removal can, in turn, challenge worker agency. Workers who feel their agency dwindling because of automation can feel minimized and mechanized, making it difficult for them to feel motivated to bring their best selves to work.

HR and business leaders should be mindful of the potential downstream consequences of introducing technology into the workplace, especially without workers’ input.

“Humans are not machines, and machines are not human, so the challenge in the workplace becomes how to strike the right balance between the two while honoring all that makes us human,” Bird said. “Being human matters. In the race for greater efficiency, productivity and speed, decision makers risk overlooking the potential impact of workplace technology on workers. Talk to those who will be using the technology. Understand their fears and solicit their feedback. Including workers as ‘on-the-ground experts’ can help restore that sense of agency.”

Technology in the workplace

The workplace technology topic resonated with several participants. Some viewed work primarily as a concrete activity, with technology having little to no place in their professional lives. Others discussed an abstract experience of work mediated by technology.

One participant discussed her physical work experience, saying she views work as a tangible activity involving manual labor and concrete outputs. “It’s your hands on something,” she said, adding that office work is foreign to her. Another participant echoed the sentiment of work being a tangible thing. He said he wasn’t inclined to find ways to use digital technology in his work or life, favoring instead “tangible human connections made through physical effort and skill.” A third participant said the platform she uses at work made her feel expendable and separated from authentic human connection. Workers, she added, have come to expect this sense of expendability when working for something invisible (or abstract).

“For most of us, it’s impossible to ‘see’ what we have accomplished in any tangible way,” Bird said. “Advanced technologies mediate much of our work, and, as such, we have less of ‘our hand’ in our work. In the past, how we worked and what we produced had far greater proximity to the ‘marketplace.’ We built tangible, enduring relationships with others to support our direct modes of exchange. Many of us today are trying to figure out how to restore our fundamental human desire for meaningful connection with the tools of the here and now. It’s a work in progress.”

Visit the WIRC site or register for the “Relevance” webinar to learn how to implement the study in your workplace.

Rapid obsolescence

According to the study, some workers feel pressured to remain relevant amid the digitized takeover of jobs and parts of jobs.

“There are several reasons some workers feel pressured to remain relevant,” Bird said. “Some see that parts of their jobs are increasingly automated and feel pressure because of it. Others struggle to imagine any way of doing things other than how they have always done things, which, in today’s rapidly digitized work world, is a precarious position to hold onto. Still, others want to adapt but are uncertain about how to do so.”

Others feel less pressured to remain relevant for various reasons.

“One of our participants, Paul, exemplifies the person approaching the end of their career who has achieved a fair degree of professional success and recognition. He’s also not especially worried about having enough money to retire on. These are all significant factors contributing to or alleviating ‘pressure,'” Bird said.

For workers who feel pressured to remain relevant, HR and business leaders can provide support by helping them discover paths forward based on their unique skill sets.

“For those who want to adapt to changes ushered in by workplace technology, it can be challenging to know how to begin,” Bird said. “Companies that embrace upskilling and skills-based work, in general, will be best equipped to help shine a light on career development options that are aligned with the company’s strategic vision and its employees’ professional goals.”

Becoming a machine

The report encourages leaders to consider two questions when deploying expertise through automation: What is being optimized, and what are the personal and social costs?

The doctor in the study said his work is becoming increasingly automated. He described “being tethered to a tablet” while feeling like he should be spending meaningful time with those he’s supposed to help. He said he’d sacrifice “becoming a machine,” even if it meant less profit.

“Many business leaders today understand that profit at the expense of people is not a sustainable business model,” Bird said. “The most successful companies today tend to be those who prioritize their employees. They are companies that care for people, the environment and the communities in which they operate. Finding the best conditions where employees can thrive while meeting the business’s goals is true optimization.”

Another participant, working for an employer claiming to value human connection, said she tried to share critical feedback with her employer but got lost in the technology experience designed to collect it. She stopped trying because escaping the feedback loop felt impossible.

“Leaders must take the time to think through the potential ramifications of their technology decisions,” Bird said. “Take care to consider the upstream consequences of introducing new tools into an established system. Take the time to consider a range of scenarios while getting direct input from those expected to ‘partner’ with these new tools.”


For some, earning a living involves using digital platforms. For example, many business owners today use social media to generate business opportunities and retain clients. According to the study, figuring out how to present oneself digitally can represent a foray into new technology and relationships.

“For those who have grown up with digital technologies as part of their everyday lives, the idea of making a living online is not particularly foreign,” Bird said. “They’re accustomed to the one-to-many character of social platforms and have practical experience in self-promotion and digital expertise. It makes sense.”

For others, figuring out how to present oneself digitally feels like “being thrown off the deep end.”

“Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of a ‘digital self’ and all that this entails technically and psychologically,” Bird said. “To them, the idea of making a living in the digital sphere is foreign and frightening.”

To support employees who are more or less comfortable with using social media and other digital technologies for work, Bird said HR and business leaders should recognize the range of comfort people have with all things digital.

“You can leverage your employees’ diverse experiences and exposures as an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning and reverse mentorship,” she said. “It can be an enriching experience.”

More insights for leaders

In addition to telling the stories of 24 workers, the WIRC study includes questions designed to help HR and business leaders implement the stories’ discoveries. Examples include:

• What is it like to use the technology we ask people to use at work?
• How often does technology change, and how are its users and the work affected?
• Who has control over how technology impacts the work?
• What aspects of our products and services are handled solely by technology?

Visit the WIRC site to get the rest of the questions for the workplace technology topic (look for the “Relevance” section). You can also register for the webinar to learn more.

This article originally appeared on SPARK powered by ADP.

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