Is technology the frenemy of culture?

I started work the year that Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK.  Despite the fact we had our first female Prime Minister, offices were dominated by men.  Workplace culture was not a thing, I doubt if anyone could have defined it let alone given examples of good and bad workplace culture.  You would have been just as likely to get the answer that culture is something that grows in a petri dish.

Technology was also rudimentary; the plain paper photo copier was the pinnacle of innovation and there was no fax let alone email or computers.

By the time I arrived in Australia ten years later, technology was gradually advancing but we did not get email until the mid 1990’s at the same time as the first PC’s that were not shared! Urgent communication in writing progressed from telex, to fax and then we saw instant messaging with applications like WhatsApp and Slack, helping teams to converse in real time.

Culture also made slow progress – we started to see women in professional and senior roles as normal and not extraordinary, concepts of employee wellbeing started to appear, we started to spend time at offsites on “values”, Managers had to start treating their colleagues with respect and poor attitudes became less accepted.

The progression of culture and technology may have been linear but there has been no correlation in how either has progressed.  Sure, technology has influenced how we interact in the workplace but for example, we are still essentially lazy, we used to phone our colleagues who sit near us, but now we message!

So, where are we now?

Both culture and technology have moved forward at a slow and steady pace but as we have seen there is no real link between the progress of either.

For technology, computers are faster but no smarter.

Culture and humanness are now at the forefront of business. The best businesses are increasingly those that recognise that a great culture drives performance and outcomes and this centres around the individual, the teams in which people work and how these interact.  That is, a focus on humanity.

No-one is suggesting that we are anywhere near a perfect workplace culture although some vastly exceed the average.  The progress has been steady but largely linear.

Similarly, although overall technology has bounded forward, its impact on the workplace (and here I am limiting myself to offices) has been gradual rather than explosive. Even the recent advent of the smartphone has not materially changed the way an office functions nor the culture of the workforce.

Ray Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns.

But where are we headed to now?

Ray Kurzweil the “restless genius” is one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers and futurists. He talks about the exponential growth in technology that we are only now, starting to experience. Big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning are all terms which many of us now use in everyday conversations (often without really understanding what they mean.)

But, how will technology impact our workplace and our culture?

Perhaps it’s best to look at one aspect to see what these changes may mean, here I am thinking of Augmented Reality or AR.  We are already seeing AR introduced into our daily lives, some cars now have navigation systems that use a video projection of the road ahead with superimposed directions.

So what does this mean to the office of the future?

No more computers on desks – AR can show a virtual desk complete with keyboard, screens etc which would enable the ultimate hot desking, sit down anywhere and my workspace appears how I like it and exactly how I last left it.

I can work from home with an identical workspace and have meetings with my colleagues.  But what about humanity? When the AR meeting finishes, I am on my own. We are all social creatures; our culture depends on the interactions we have and the connections we establish and foster.

The problem as I see it is like the Palaeolithic man eating a modern diet his body is not designed for.

Our technology is amazing and moving forward at an accelerating and breathtaking pace but our humanity and the culture that comes out of it is slow and steady.

We have known for a long time that a well-motivated workforce will achieve amazing things and a great culture is a massive part of this. But the challenge for all businesses in the 21st century will be to embrace the changes and opportunities technology gives whilst remaining human and growing our culture.  Those that can navigate these challenges will be the businesses that lead. Those that fail to recognise this imperative will be doomed to underperform in a rapidly changing world. That will tell us whether technology is our friend or our frenemy.