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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Is technostress threatening your employees?

February 4, 2008

As I watched someone write an actual paper check in a checkout line one day, I saw one reason why a lot of companies have turnover problems.

I pay for almost everything with cash or with plastic. Both are very fast, so when somebody is methodically writing out a check, it gives me just enough time to stew over how slow he is. When I use my card, I can swipe it with a practiced flick, tap a few keys, and head out the door. Many stores don't even make me sign anything now.

So when I see people writing checks, I have to wonder why they've elected to do the least efficient thing possible. It could be fear of the card reader, I suppose, or just stubbornness. But it also seems it's a way of blocking out stress. Each of those little card readers is a little different from store to store, which makes the weary shopper just that much more stressed as he figures out how to work the thing. Writing a check is the same sequence every time. Once you perfect it, it's a skill for life. Learning to work a particular card reader is a skill that lasts for at most a year or two, until the design changes again.

If the shopper is prone to frustration, imagine how the average retail employee feels. Everything around her changes constantly, often with no apparent reason. The old cash register disappears, replaced by a stripped-down little point-of-sale computer. Then the point-of-sale computer needs new software. The time clock is replaced by a new one, followed a few weeks later by the wholesale replacement of the soft drink machines in the break room. Then add the handheld device for inventory, the photo machine, the security system, and the list keeps growing.

The retail employee has it easy, actually. The office worker is often far worse off. Most companies use a plethora of different software and devices, and all of them are prone to being jerked out and replaced from time to time. The most recent example for me is Office 2007, with its "ribbons" in place of menus. What fun it is to spend an hour chasing down a control through the jungle of new icons, when I used to know intuitively where it was in the menus. It's like spending your working hours coping with scores of stubborn and evasive children.

Many techno-workers can't focus on important tasks because they're "multitasking," moving quickly from one little device to another, which creates no end of stress. Add to this problem the overload of e-mails most of us have, the daily hunt for missing files, network outages, and the physical stress of sitting for long periods, and it's no wonder that workers rebel by finding new jobs or surreptitiously refusing to cooperate in the madness.

It has its own word: technostress (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technostress). The phenomenon isn't new. Michelle Weil and Larry Rosen wrote the book "Technostress: Coping with Technology" back in 1998 (www.technostress.com). Craig Brod published his "Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution" even earlier, in 1984.

Technostress doesn't stop at the office door, either. It follows us out, hitchhiking on our cell phones, BlackBerrys, text messages and, of course, card readers. One United Kingdom study even linked technostress with a tendency to drink excessively (www.dpp.org.uk). Librarians were among the first to notice technostress among their patrons, after card catalogs were replaced in the 1980s and '90s with computer terminals (www2.una.edu/psychology/alatalk.htm).

The problem is made worse on the job by management that doesn't recognize it. Despite what you may think, workers aren't always whiners. By the time they make comments about their pain, it's usually advanced beyond the initial annoyance stage. Management wants greater efficiency; workers just don't want to be burdened any more heavily. What often happens then is that workers quietly resist, and little gets done.

There are ways to reduce technostress. One of the biggest is to provide a supportive atmosphere. Give employees training and allow them some time for the training to fully blossom. Make sure there are "gurus" available to help those who are angry or stuck. Keep the expectation fire at a low simmer, so employees don't blame themselves. Coach your IT team in how to deal with frustrated users. Upgrade only when necessary. Buy software and devices that are userfriendly (test them out first on your own staff). In fact, let employees have a voice in choosing new tools. They may pick a more expensive solution than you'd like, but if they use it happily and often, it could turn out to be the most effective over the long haul.

Writing checks may be slow, but it gets the job done with the least need for anger management classes.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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