Stanley Louw: British workers are still stuck on email, and here's why

Sometimes it strikes me just how deeply technology has permeated our lives. In another time, if I had wanted to touch base with my 14 year old son, I would have had to pick up the phone. Today, we spend time together playing together virtually on our PlayStations. This is clearly a much more appealing prospect for both of us.

Digital technology has changed the way we live our lives outside of work, so why hasn’t it changed the way we work? YouTube suggests the videos we want to watch, Facebook serves us up the products we want to buy, and Google displays the articles we want to read. So why can’t our workplace technology make our working lives easier and more personalised too?

The problem isn’t a lack of technology initiatives – companies are currently rolling out digital workplace tools with great enthusiasm. The problem isn’t a resistance on the part of employees either – a recent study on Workplace Experience, conducted by Avanade in conjunction with YouGov, showed that 65 per cent of the British workers surveyed had a positive attitude towards workplace technologies. Yet, the same study showed that workers still overwhelmingly favour dated technologies like email (76 per cent). On the other hand, the uptake of more collaborative tools, such as Teams, Slack, WebEx and Skype, remain relatively low (39 per cent).

Why aren’t employees embracing digital tech, if they have access to it, and believe in its potential to benefit their work? If you ask me, companies aren’t making it easy enough for employees to use more sophisticated workplace technology, and there are several reasons why.

In many cases, technology is rolled out without proper consideration of how it should actually help the business achieve its goals. If new technology doesn’t help the company achieve its vision, or support its employee value proposition, then it’s unlikely the uptake will be strong. In some cases, a technology solution is indeed designed to fit a company’s vision, but without the proper effort to engage employees, adoption falls flat.

In other cases, it’s a small technicality that prevents the workforce from fully embracing the tech. A disconnect can arise when leadership doesn’t use the technology themselves, which leads employees to question whether its use is really looked upon favourably. Or maybe employees are evaluated in a way that conflicts with the adoption of the technology. This was the case for a customer of ours who rolled out a collaboration solution, then realised employees weren’t really encouraged to embrace the new way of working because they were evaluated based on their individual contribution.

If HR teams want to ensure their employees make the most of the digital tech the company has provided them with, there are several steps that can be taken. The starting point of any initiative should be the goals and vision of the business, so HR has a role to play in ensuring that any technology solution is devised to support them. It sounds like an obvious measure, but you’d be surprised how many companies fail to take this simple step. Not only will a strategic approach make technology more appealing for employees, it will also ensure that the company ends up getting the most out of its investment in tech.

The next step for HR teams is making sure the technology solution is actually going to help employees do their work better. After all, this will always be the most compelling reason for them to start using it! This is generally where tech rollouts fail. In a lot of cases, IT is the department put in charge of technology programs, yet they often struggle to involve HR in helping them understand how employees currently work, and where they would benefit most from workplace technology.

Indeed, our Workplace Experience survey found that 51 per cent of respondents believe IT and HR aren’t collaborating well enough on the topic. Furthermore, 45 per cent of them feel this is hindering the potential of workplace tech to improve their creativity. However, if IT and HR departments could succeed in joining forces, each would be able to bring their particular expertise to the table – IT the technological capability and HR their familiarity with the employee lifecycle.

Of course, the technology itself is only the beginning. If a technology solution is designed to meet the needs of the business and its employees, it is well placed for adoption by the workforce. However, the real test is engaging the workforce to integrate the technology into their daily work. This involves communication and training, to introduce a solution to employees and show them how to use it. It also involves a change management process that guides them in making the shift.

We have worked with clients who have tackled this challenge in many different ways. Some have introduced champion networks or talent communities to provide an example of best-practice use. Others have sought to legitimise new technologies by getting leadership to set the right tone from the top. The most important thing is highlighting the ways in which employees will benefit from the technology, and providing as much support and encouragement as possible in their transition to using it.

British workers aren’t stuck on email due to any particular attachment to the technology, nor do they hesitate in switching to more modern technology because they are in some way resistant to it. Workers simply don’t understand how they’re supposed to use the technology that’s springing up so prolifically across the workplace. And how can they be expected to when the majority of companies rolling it out don’t understand either? HR has an important role to play in any workplace technology program in helping the rollout team understand the real value of digital tech, and helping them imagine what this looks like for the company and its employees.





Stanley Louw leads Innovation and Workplace Value Realisation for Avanade UK, where he assists business leaders with navigating the increasing pace of change in the industry by focusing on digital disruption, customer-centricity and excellence in execution.