Addicted to technology

Can new technology provided by a company to boost productivity cause workers to become addicted? If yes, who’s responsible: workers or ...

By Nada Kakabadse , Gayle Porter and David Vance 01 December 2007

Can new technology provided by a company to boost productivity cause workers to become addicted?Addicted to technologyIf yes, who’s responsible: workers or management? Nada Kakabadse, Gayle Porter and David Vance see an uncharted legal frontier emerging. Is any company prepared?

Last August, an Australian website posted a video and story about a social disease that emanates from how the workplace is managed. Consider the opening words of the report:

It’s a phenomenal statistic, but Australians rank as world leaders in working hours each week. Our economy is booming, yet our traditional social structures are disintegrating. Attached to our technology 24/7 with laptops, blackberries and mobile phones, we've become a stressed out and anxious society. Families, friends and our health are all suffering.

We, too, have observed this mania for work. But we think there may be a pervasive villain in this situation that goes beyond the obvious slave-driving boss or the undisciplined workaholic.

Technology has created new capabilities, as well as new demands, for many of today’s employees. For those who work in technologyenhanced environments, the pace and round-the-clock activity create a source of stimulation that may become addictive. While the potential for this type of behavioural addiction is recognized by both researchers and the popular press, few companies are seriously considering the associated risks, one of which could be legal action against the organization. Couldn’t happen? Read on.

All you can do?

The realization of information and communication technology (ICT) as a crucial organizational resource has grown in importance. One result of this is that employees’ work practices and employee-management negotiations have become more complex and political. Knowing that newly installed technology can make it possible for workers to do more often leads to management expecting that productivity will increase. Unfortunately, many organizations are adopting new ICT much more rapidly than they understand how to organize social life around it or how to guard against negative consequences.

For example, a key consideration in any workplace with expanded technology is whether people believe the technology can be fit to them or whether they have to adapt to the technology. If you’re driving a new car, you are in control; but that is not necessarily the case when a new array of desk computers and handheld personal information managers are delivered to the office. While ICT is perceived by some as facilitating flexible work practices (for example, being able to work from anywhere at any time), others perceive it as an impingement on their personal lives accompanied by a loss of discretionary time, an out-of-whack work-life balance, and elevated stress.

Yet, curiously, a new phenomenon is happening, which we think managers need to watch very closely. What happens when workplace technology is expanded and people grasp its new power – so much so that they can’t live without it?

Some individuals who experience ICT become addicted to it. Have you ever found yourself whiling away an entire Sunday afternoon browsing the Internet? Much the same kind of activity can happen at work. Technology facilitates immersion, enabling the individual to become so intensely involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Hence, the experience itself is so captivating that an individual will do it even at great personal cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

Go with the flow

This phenomenon of getting lost in the process has been well researched and defined as a “flow state” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1991). However, achieving a flow state can also have a dark side.

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