There’s been an interesting debate recently about the ‘dark side’ of IT, prompted by some research coming out of the University of Lancaster Management School. Its study into the over-use of technology suggests that IT is actually decreasing productivity and innovation in some organisations, despite the widely-held view that it actually does the opposite.

According to Professor of Information Systems, Monideepa Tarafdar, there are four key factors at play:

  1. “Techno-stress”
  2. Information overload
  3. Misuse of IT
  4. IT addiction

Of course most would accept that overindulgence in IT – just like binge eating and drinking – isn’t good for you. But where on earth would HR be without it?

Remember the days before Google when you had to spend hours trawling through legal handbooks to find the precise bit of information you needed, or when you placed a recruitment advert and had to wait weeks for the CVS to come rolling in. Not to mention the manual systems you probably had in place to remind you of overdue performance reviews or end of probation dates – and the time-consuming admin associated with sending out employee communications (envelope-stuffing, anyone?).

As with most things, moderation is key. So what can HR do to make sure employees use IT responsibly and without damaging their health and well-being – while also ensuring the organisation reaps the many benefits it can bring?

Do your research

One of the recommendations to come out of the Lancaster research is for organisations to conduct an audit to find out how IT is being used, how employees feel about it and what issues they may be facing. Are people feeling under pressure, for example, to respond instantly to emails sent out-of-hours? Is inability to access files when working remotely impeding progress? Or is constant email down-time or out-of-date systems making it difficult for people to meet deadlines? Armed with the right knowledge, you’ll be able to fix niggling problems or put policies in place to tackle bigger, cultural issues.

Make friends with IT

HR and IT have traditionally kept their distance. But there’s a real case for both parties to break out of their silos and start working together to make sure the organisation maximises the benefits of its IT investment. IT can of course help to implement policy decisions – such as switching off email at certain times (a move some companies have been experimenting with) or helping to embed new systems with automated reminders telling people what they need to do under the new arrangement. But IT can also help HR keep up-to-date with the latest developments in Cloud-based technology, advise on Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, and even help to build a business case for a new state-of-the-art HR system.

Raise employee awareness

Do your employees know how long to sit at a computer before taking a break? Are they putting themselves at risk of back or neck problems with incorrect posture? Would managers recognise the signs of stress caused by email overload or the need to be ‘always on’? Don’t assume that employees or managers automatically know what best practice is, or how to deal with any IT-related well-being concerns that may arise. Educate about the sensible use of IT as part of your induction programme for new employees, and find ways in ongoing training and development programmes to reinforce those messages so that the ‘dark side’ of IT is less likely to emerge.

Consider the people implications

Often new IT systems which are designed to make people’s lives easier inadvertently cause more stress. Not everyone likes change and some employees may struggle to adapt to new ways of doing things. A new HR system is a prime example. If people are used to ringing up HR to ask how much annual leave they have left, they may initially resent having to log in to an HR portal and find the information themselves. In a multi-generational workforce, there may also be those who are not confident with IT and need extra support. Don’t launch new systems in a blaze of glory and just expect everyone to get on with it. Make sure to explain the benefits of a new system clearly so that people are motivated to use it. Be prepared to provide training and support to those who may struggle to get to grips with a new system and monitor progress regularly so you can pick up any minor problems before they become big issues.

Use IT to empower

IT can be a great tool for stimulating creativity, encouraging innovation and improving productivity. Yet in many organisations, HR focus more on how they can ‘control’ use of IT, rather than on how they can harness it to empower employees. Trying to keep a tight hold on employee use of IT is pretty pointless at a time when people can access the Internet or social media via their own tablets or mobile devices. Yes, you probably do need a policy around use of IT and social media – but it should be more about how employees can use it to support their role and underpinned by trust that if given relatively free rein, most people will do the right thing. Look at how you can use some of the latest generation technologies to break down departmental barriers, enable staff to network with peers from across the business, and stimulate the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Some of the latest HR software, for example, comes with integral social portals that allow employees to connect and access the information they need quickly and easily. Allowing people (and particularly employees from Generation Y) to use IT in a way that seems natural to them is the key to happy, engaged, and productive employees.

One action to take this week: Is IT a blocker or enabler in your organisation? Organise a focus group with staff drawn from across the business to help you get a picture of how well it’s working for you.

You may be interested in reading out guide to supporting employee well-being.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.