Dismantling Technofear

Humans fear change we don’t understand or can’t predict. We can’t help it; it’s a survival instinct built into our DNA. In recent months, we've seen the alarm caused by fear of change mount as cultural shifts have come ever more quickly. We've also witnessed the truth that anxiety is even more potent when we are isolated. With our great capacity for imagination, we take these moments of fear and amplify them in ever more creative – and potentially dangerous ways.

Is there hope? Of course. In 2020, workers weathered the most challenging ‘stress test’ of the Information Age. We took on a slew of technologies to support work at home, thereby proving that technofear is not our master. We've had to face that change is inevitable.

Mixed Office/Remote Work Is Inevitable

People who had never heard of telecommuting were thrust into it full time. Some people became agoraphobic 1, afraid of leaving home due to COVID risks. We agonized in solitary when a message arrived to call the Boss. Social media’s maze of illusory truth conspiracies 2 took the place of traditional check-and-balance water cooler interactions that would usually allow us to diffuse stress and share ideas casually.

And now that some of our colleagues are returning to the office, remote workers are awakening to new fears of being left behind 3. But telecommuting works. It has been practiced, perfected, forgotten and reinvented multiple times since the 1970s 4, and the keys to successful remote work are always the same human factors: adapt to the changes in communication, foster teamwork and build trust. Employees and their managers need to reach out proactively to make sure that all team members are effectively sharing ideas, tasks and opportunities 5. Basic telepresence including email, phone, text, messenger and web conferencing ensures that everyone can be reached, consulted and supported in their jobs.

“Employees will benefit from assurance that new technology is more of an asset than a threat.”

Automation Is Inevitable

Repetitious and/or dangerous tasks can and will be automated as the technology becomes available. Fear of automation replacing humans was stoked by the industrial revolution and reached a fever pitch in the 1950s and 60s as the world was gripped by 'automation hysteria' 6. Personal accounts of fear and tragedy over automation-driven loss of jobs, respect and worker rights set a dire tone in union publications 7. But we got over it. Yes, many old jobs disappeared with the introduction of factory robots 8, word processors, phone voice response units (VRUs), faxes, emails, music synthesizers, online shopping and more. But new jobs were created.

Today, fear continues to lead to damage and violence. Paranoia over 5G signals have led to vandalized cell towers 9, and as recently as 2019, De Montfort University has chronicled British workers who are damaging factory robots 10. Managers must assure that employees understand the context of automation changes and are offered clear benefits and opportunities to improve their work life choices.

If you are in a job that can be automated, overcome your fear and look upon this moment as an opportunity to explore a new path.

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) is simply the next step in automation, and even the glitziest systems are still basically a pile of nested programming instructions.”

We are a long way from worrying about transcendent AIs that act like SkyNet, Colossus or The Matrix. Today’s AI systems are tools for your convenience, and the more people learn about their uses and limitations, the less fearful they should be.

Progressive Technology Is Inevitable

Many people naturally resist change because they already know how to do a job and are comfortable with their methods. In some cases, the change turns into a fight. A Wall Street Journal article 11 relates the story of a Houston, TX, law firm where employees faced with a new cloud platform flooded IT Support with complaints and uploaded information in ways that caused massive data errors. They even kept legally sensitive information on their own computers rather than learn how to enter it into the official workflow systems. Employees and their managers can reduce these types of incidents by forging joint ownership of the new technology. Specifically, they can work together to foster technology innovations through shared research and design, focus groups and bottom-up feedback that is genuinely respected by company leadership 12. If the new systems are not as good as the old, or need modification to succeed, solutions will be stronger with all stakeholders fully informed. Employees who feel heard are far less likely to subvert changes in business processes. This can prevent damage to the business and ultimately keep them from losing their jobs.

Knowledge Affords Power Over Technofear

In the sixties, the mantra was ‘Question Authority’. Now, it should be ‘Question Your Source.’

We live at a point in time where the internet is full of predators who enjoy causing mayhem.

If new technology is causing a tumult of public FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), just remember that anyone can publish anything on the internet, and they can make their materials smart, flashy and convincing. When researching a topic like 5G, COVID vaccine safety and so on, care must be taken to find credible sources. Many universities such as Georgetown University 13 and other thinktanks offer courses and tips, which in turn must be evaluated carefully to determine if a source has bias.

In the case of named systems, such as a database platform, medical records system or customer relationship management tool, take time to read up before it’s due to arrive. Learn how it works and read forum and support posts to see what others like and dislike. The process is similar to reviewing a product on a shopping site.

Found a way to make the new technology work better? Got a script to create a more efficient report? Have an idea that could speed up data entry? Share it with the team. Making everyone’s life easier improves job satisfaction. Soon, everyone will be sharing tips.

It’s worth becoming an expert on the new technology. This provides the best opportunity to credibly steer the direction of its use and make it easy for other employees. The story of Katherine Johnson’s 14 team at NASA, presented in the movie Hidden Figures, is a real inspiration here. A group of untrained mathematicians took over a new IBM mainframe and mastered its operation at a skill level beyond that of the IBM engineers, and they did it before the system was even brought online.

If there are operational problems with the technology, these steps above will lead to constructive dialogs and deserved considerations for improvements. Managers and IT departments are accustomed to shirking subjective complaints, but they will take notice of ideas that really improve the business, and ultimately, employee work life.

Take a moment to appreciate that the smartphone you are likely using to read this article is far more powerful than the best mainframes of the 1960s 15 that cost millions of dollars, like the one that helped to send astronauts to the moon in Hidden Figures. You are already a technowiz. There’s nothing really to fear.

Picture of John Girard

John Girard

John Girard is an internationally recognized technology industry analyst with 30 years experience at Gartner where he led research to empower teleworking, virtual private networking, mobile device management and security. His goal is to enable managers and employees to realize the benefits of technology by understanding the ways that it can enhance human interactions.

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