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When technology works, it can help us be well and more productive, Graeme Hughes, MD of Innovise, tells Fiona Perrin; but watch out for those applications that can lead to more, rather than less, stress.
Graeme Hughes is a practical man for someone in the sometimes seemingly impenetrable world of high tech. His language is down to earth, his motivation is all about on-the-ground needs for practical solutions in FM; and his heart is not in apps and acronyms but with the FM workforce on the ground.
Rather than talking AI and robots, Hughes is focused on the here and now – and specifically on technology which makes us more productive and enhances our wellbeing. Get it wrong, he warns, and we could be adding to employee stress.
“Take the recent influx of offers for services that let you borrow immediately against your salary,” he says. “Used responsibly, you would assume that they would help us support the financial wellbeing of our workforces. But imagine a scenario where a security guard is frequently borrowing against a percentage of pay, whether contracted hours or overtime – in the next pay period the individual also has the previous period’s borrowing to repay, and as such they need to borrow again. Without proper safeguards, it can build a routine dependency. That could start an individual on a spiral of borrowing which is difficult to control.”
It’s a good practical example and one which Innovise – which provides workforce management software for 42 of the top 50 FM providers in the UK, as well as companies in the US and Europe - knows well. “Instead,” says Hughes (left), “we ought to be focusing on a stress-free experience for some of the lowest paid people in the country; software which provides certainty and clarity: pay slips delivered on time, holiday requests dealt with efficiently. Help them with finding extra income, educate them about other services. Are there more wholesome ways we can care for those in our charge?”
Wellbeing in all areas of life
Wellbeing for employees now extends well beyond providing health information and gym memberships, into all aspects of an employee’s life.
Dan Cobley of venture builder Blenheim Chalcot, quoted in Forbes, defines financial wellness as “the degree to which an individual worries about their personal money issues”. According to its data, 48% of employees claimed to have these worries and “they are four times more likely to be suffering from depression and three times more likely to be suffering from anxiety/panic attacks than those that do not have financial worries.”
Francesca Carlesi, of Molo Finance, said in the same piece: “It means more than just ensuring that people have the ability to effectively manage their financial matters, and should mean that people have the tools or products…. Either way, it should mean that money matters are not causing issues for people, or playing on their minds in any way.”
To Hughes, this means tech that allows colleagues to immediately access the information they need – to see their gross pay in real-time; easily see what opportunities there are for more contracted hours which fit in with the rest of their life commitments; receive correct overtime information; book holidays; and receive information tailored to their job roles, for example. “This means that they will be more engaged, more productive and as a consequence less stressed than those who don’t,” he says.
Tech doesn’t necessarily mean an easier life
In essence, technology can undermine our wellbeing as much as it can support it. The data itself supports Hughes’ view: less than half (45%) of respondents in a recent CIPD/Simplyhealth report believed advances in technology have either a slightly positive or very positive effect on employee wellbeing.
“Technology’s positive impacts on our working lives – and wellbeing – include being able to work flexibly and being better connected through faster and easier communication. On the flipside, technology can mean that people find it hard to switch off from work and can feel stress caused by technology failures – both of which negatively impact wellbeing,” says the report.
Another survey – this time from health insurance group Cigna - concluded: “The ‘always on’ work culture, accelerated by smartphone use, is becoming more entrenched while numbers of people whose mental health is badly affected by the stress of the workplace is rising.” The problem is worse for women according to the survey, exacerbated by caring and other family duties outside the home: “Women are more stressed than men, many of them managing both the family and work. They do not feel supported enough by their employers, only half of whom offer any workplace wellness programmes. Half of the people we spoke to wanted more from their employers,” said Jason Sadler, Cigna’s president, international markets.
Concentrate on the stuff that matters
The balance between being ‘always on’ and ‘over-worked’ is a hard balance to find. “Systems need to be simple and useful, but also healthy,” says Hughes. “We are all in danger of data overload.”
Used effectively, streamlining the information that people receive in frontline roles can be a key tool for engagement, he adds. According to Gallup, just 8% of the UK workforce is engaged at work but our productivity gap with our competitors is well-known. Research from the Social Market Foundation states that happy and engaged employees are up to 20% more productive, and further research from Gallup reveals that engaged employees can increase sales by up to 20%.
“So imagine that instead of all the company information issued by a service provider, the colleague on the ground is receiving tailored and useful news and updates about their site, their role and their immediate environment,” says Hughes, citing the fact that many in frontline roles feel more loyalty to the end-user organisation than they do to their outsourced employer, especially after multiple contract changes and TUPE moves. “But,” he notes, “providing distilled information that can really assist a colleague to help the client’s organisational goals, drives engagement and better performance.”
So, a colleague can be “always on” but in a way that makes sense to them and engages them. “The journey of workforce management software started off as policing and compliance – making sure the right people were in the right place at the right time particularly in regulated sectors, but now organisations are increasingly understanding that it is not just the ‘stick’ of rules and regulations - software also helps provide the ‘carrot’,” Hughes argues.
“Our clients increasingly look to us to help provide them with more interaction, particularly where colleagues are working out of hours or in dispersed locations. What is the company doing and why is it doing it? How do we interact with our night workers? They put technology into the hands of the colleague, so that they have more control.”
This in turn leads to better employee engagement ‘trust’ scores, built on the well-understood theory that those with more certainty in their ‘locus of control’ experience less stress.
“It also helps with retention,” Hughes says. “Our research shows that it takes 12 man-hours to replace a security guard. We see our role as reducing stress as we enhance productivity for the back office staff who manage resourcing, too.”
The stress of management
Hughes talks about frontline managers who should be meeting clients and, instead, are spending their time interviewing staff, doing ever increasing amounts of administration (largely owing to yet more systems). With the huge data set that comes from Innovise’s reach into frontline service providers, Hughes says his company is focused on giving the contract managers and operations managers the information they need to do their jobs more easily, too.
“The jobs of these managers are increasingly challenging,” he says. “We provide benchmarking information that helps the boardroom and everyone below it to understand where they sit in relation to other organisations like theirs – where they don’t meet the industry averages and where they excel. Some providers suffer from 100% employee churn a year, but others, who are using the technology as part of their engagement and management solutions are at less than 10%. Many organisations simply don’t know how well they do or don’t do, and what they don’t or can’t measure, they tend not to manage. That’s just one example – but information is readily available to help organisations improve. Innovise is able to help because of our unique exposure to the marketplace.”
We talk a lot about the ‘frictionless workplace’ in FM – but just dealing with the daily frustrations and niggles of our service delivery colleagues can really help with a smooth experience, he says. Another example is that most payroll queries are actually derived from colleagues on the frontline miscalculating their pay – being able to see the calculations in real-time reduces queries into the payroll team, and therefore colleague frustration, significantly.
Technology to drive better working lives
The next step could be using technology to help us work less rather than more – but with potentially big uplifts in productivity. In one example, this month UK call centre operator Simply Business said it was using technology to let people work a four-day week instead of five with no loss of pay – data and analytics are the key.
Hughes believes “the brain is a muscle and you must rest it properly” and that given a choice, through the right tech, some colleagues would reduce their hours rather than increase them, to assist their wellbeing or meet family commitments, with the benefit of fresher people in front-line roles. He accepts that there are industry conventions and societal norms that would need challenging – but encouraging longer shifts and hours is not helping. It was researchers from Stamford University who exposed the “productivity cliff” - researchers found that employee output drops dramatically after 55 hours worked in a week.
“As we progress, we need to ensure that the solutions we choose to deploy are making us more productive and protecting our workforce,” concludes Hughes. “We look after some of the hardest working, but lowest paid people in the country in our industry, and it is part of our responsibility to protect them.”
A technology leader who talks about issues we all need to address and in language we all understand? We need more of that.
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