This past two weeks, while others have been working hard on their writing in connection with the Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), I have been catching up on my reading. A recurrent topic in the books and articles I have read so far is the way IT systems have been used, within the last 15 to 20 years, in order to carry out profound changes in the way work is distributed, structured, monitored and evaluated. Ironically, those changes have led to a significant loss in efficiency, while work-related physical and psychological symptoms of ill-being, both in the workplace and at home, seem to become ever more common.
One of my colleagues, with whom I found myself sharing my surprise at those so openly counterproductive developments, explained to me that these changes were largely due to a certain view of human workers, where money was seen as the single motivation behind employees’ carrying out their tasks as required. In other words, it is assumed that absolute control is needed in order to ensure that workers do their work properly, since they otherwise will do everything they can to get their pay without fulfilling their part of the contract. This really was an eye-opening statement for me, as I realized that some of my first efforts in trying to improve a work-related computerized tool had failed for precisely this very reason. Let me recap.
A while ago, I was offered the possibility to evaluate the usability of a system used to manage different types of documentary resources. Since the interface of the system was about to be changed, my focus was less on the specific characteristics of the current interface than on the structure and contents of the main work processes supported by the system. After observations and interviews with different staff members and a thorough analysis of the results, I had come to the following suggestion for improvement: reducing the number of open fields displayed in the form used to create a new record in the system by taking only the fields most frequently used for each type of resource. This way, employees would not only get an immediate overview of the required information – making the use of the interface more intuitive – but would also be able to fill in the form without unnecessary scrolling and clicking, enabling them to be faster. To me, this seemed to be a very simple and cheap solution to implement, especially in consideration of its very high potential impact on efficiency. However, this proposal was met with a direct veto by one of the main decision-makers behind the system’s design. His argument: the employees would no longer bother to create high quality, “full” records if the possibility of not filling in all the fields was somehow presented as more acceptable to them.
I was stunned. I argued that employees did not have the time to fill in all *theoretically* required fields anyway, since it demanded an amount of time they just were not given. In consideration of their limited resources, they just had to prioritize the information they entered about each document. Most importantly, all employees had shown an incredible dedication in creating records as complete and consistent as possible, in spite of the hurdles the system put in their way when doing so. As such, it seemed very unlikely that a simplification of the form’s display would lead to a loss in quality – the contrary was more probable, since employees would be quicker in filling in “obvious” information, and would thus have more time to pay attention to more unusual, document-specific characteristics. However, in spite of my attempts at convincing my audience, I left the room knowing that my report and the suggestions it contained to improve the system would end up in the paper bin, unread.
At the time, I was not able to put words on what had happened; I could not understand the perspective of that key decision-maker who had flatly refused to listen to my arguments in favor of improving a badly designed, and very inefficient, system. In light of my colleague’s words however, it all started making sense. But let me say this: if people did not want to make a good job, and were not intrinsically motivated to do so, they would not care about bad IT systems. They would not feel bad about the lack of efficiency those bad systems generate – as they are getting paid a fixed amount of money each month, why should they care about “producing” as much as possible? Indeed, if money actually were people’s only drive, employees would be happy doing just average work and quantity would not be of any consequence to them. They would go home satisfied with their workday no matter how many usability-related issues they have encountered, no matter how much time they have spent on struggling with their digital tools. There would be no frustration, no (di-)stress, no burnout. People would probably get bored, but they would find workarounds for that, too. All would be well.
As all is not well, however, a sensible conclusion is that people care. They want to do a good job, and take pride in doing it as best as they can. They get frustrated when the digital tools they use get into their way, and prevent them from reaching their goals. Often, those negative feelings follow them home after work. Increasingly, those negative feelings affect their psychological and physical health.
I wish decision-makers would recognize that, and take steps in order to support and empower their workforce – for example by providing them with flexible IT systems leaving them the freedom to determine how to best carry out their work tasks.