Guest Column: July 2020

An icon of a usb cable forming the shape of a head with the brain coming out of one end of the cable, black and full of lighting bolts.


The coming clash of technology and human nature

Karl Schubert, Ph.D.

Professor of Practice and Associate Director, Data Science Program, 
College of Engineering, and the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and 
J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences
University of Arkansas

I STARTED WORKING from home back in 1974. I was still in college and was doing various co-op assignments for Honeywell Information Systems in Oklahoma City. One assignment was to program their online management inventory control system. Another was to help install a time-sharing system; yet another was to assist in setting up a new mainframe computer.

Those of us on the co-op assignments could check out a terminal, so I eventually checked out a Teletype 43. Google it: It was a sleek looking thing for its time, and with that I could do coding for Honeywell from my apartment. And then after I got my Master’s and worked a while and went back to school to get a Ph.D. here at the University, I ended up installing the mainframe VM systems for the University of Arkansas System statewide. 

But back then we actually had winter, complete with snow, and during those times it was hard and unpleasant to get around. As it turned out, I had a friend who was an Electrical Engineering student, and he was looking to earn some money. “How about this,” I said. “I’ll buy a Heathkit H-19 Terminal and pay you to put it together for me.” We settled on a payment of $100, and after that I was actually able to dial in through a modem and do all my systems work for the University from a table in my bedroom. No more putting chains on my tires and slogging through the slush.

I tell this story to make this point: Some people have been working at home for decades, and for them it’s old hat. But now, with the pandemic and its fallout, a whole lot of new people are working from home. That’s got to be an adjustment, and not just for the suddenly home-bound employees; their bosses are going to have to do some soul-searching too.

From a technology standpoint, there’s never been a better time to work remotely, especially if you’re what I call a “solo worker.” By that, I mean someone whose job doesn’t require a lot of interaction with other people. For example, I know a young woman who works in the accounting department of one of the major companies in Northwest Arkansas.  She has maybe two meetings a week; the rest of the time she’s processing payments and doing reconciliations. In late March, her company sent their employees home to work, and for her the technology has made her transition almost seamless. Her main requirement is a consistent Internet, because her company uses Microsoft Teams and cloud-based software applications. So, her husband got them gigabit Ethernet and ran a 50-foot cable back from the modem to her new bedroom office, and it works great.

Today’s technology means that a solo worker like this young woman can work at home and hardly know the difference. All current computers can support at least dual monitors. There’s enough Internet available to most places so you can do the necessary video work and be connected all the time. And the tools work together better than they ever have. Whether you’re using Windows or Mac, it turns out that the office environment is pretty much the same. That improvement began about a decade ago when Microsoft started moving the code base for the Office Suite to being the same code for Mac and Windows. The interfaces are almost the same now: Word is the same, Excel is the same, OneNote is the same, PowerPoint is the same, Teams is the same. It’s Outlook that’s not yet quite the same, but the new Outlook is beginning to get there. I personally like the new Outlook on Mac better than I do the one on Windows. All the technology you need for working at home is in place. 

So, where’s the problem? Well, let’s continue with the example of this young woman doing her accounting work at home. Did I mention that she has a newborn baby? And that since the pandemic, she can’t have her nanny into the house? If you know anything about the business world, you’ll already see the rising conflict. Because her manager initially insisted that she work regular office hours, clocking in at 8 and clocking out at 5, and she can’t do that. She and her work-at-home husband have to work around each other’s schedule, taking turns with the baby. She told her manager that she would get the hours in, but now she has to do it her way. 

THE HOME OFFICE will never be the same as the office office, and I suspect that we’re in for a long period of fits and starts as the business world tries to get its head around that.  

If a large part of your workforce is working from home, it changes the entire dynamic of working together. It changes the dynamic of teams. It changes the dynamics of management and leadership. Even if everyone is in their little box on Zoom, nothing is quite the same. There’s no true equivalent of an in-person brainstorming session, or of team members sitting together in a room taking turns writing on the white board.

To me, these changes in how people communicate and relate will demand that businesses need to change their processes, particularly their review and approval processes. And, given that companies are relying on their employees’ Internet connections and mobile phones (two-factor authentication), the question will undoubtedly be raised as to whether or not employees should be reimbursed for all or part of those expenses. 

Not everyone is going to be onboard with such changes. I recently read, in this very newsletter, a fascinating article by Tyson CTO Scott Spradley projecting that we’ll see a lot of “bureaucracy busting” post-pandemic, as companies work to streamline their time to market. I agree that forward-looking companies will do just that, but you can’t overlook the fact that there are a lot of old-style managers out there—people who, for example, cling to the old butts-in-the-seats mentality. They’re the ones pushing for surveillance software so they can keep tabs on their employees working from home. For those managers it’s going to be really hard to agree to cut the bureaucracy, because bureaucracy is the thing that keeps them alive. It’s what gives them job security. 

But for these managers, and for many others in the working world, we are approaching a moment of reckoning. I foresee two coming trends in the business world. Companies that are a little more farsighted are going to look at how to delegate more decision making to the individuals and to lower levels of management. It’ll push the layers down, and it might also cause some of the large companies to rethink their spending and control. 

The other major trend we’re likely to see will be changing the way employees are measured. If a large percentage of your people are working remotely, and you have the tools to tell when they’re on and when they’re not, how do you judge whether or not they’re doing a good job? I think we’ll see less emphasis on work time and more on what they get accomplished. You basically say, “This week we’re going to do these five complex things, 20 not as complex things, and 30 easy things. I don’t care when you do it, just get it done.” It’s like the difference between RPM and velocity: Don’t get hung up on the former when it’s the latter that counts here. 

People who work in, and with, technology are at a real advantage now. It’s easy for them to work at home and they can readily adapt to new tech-based communication methods. But a lot of business people who came of age in the traditional office setting are going to face hard challenges. Not only will they have to rethink their management philosophies, but they’ll also have to learn to master the new technologies. Or else.

We know that a lot of companies have been slow to adopt such technologies, and we know the reason. In an article in last September’s ACDS Newsletter, Charles Morgan quoted TechCrunch, the online site for tech and startup news, on this very subject:  “We have been hearing about big data and data-driven decision making for so long, you would think it has become hardened into our largest organizations by now. As it turns out, new research finds that most large companies are having problems implementing an organization-wide, data-driven strategy…the data suggests that it’s not a technology problem, it’s a people problem.”

For a lot of managers, so much new technology coming at them so fast is extremely daunting—overwhelming, even. For a time, they had the luxury of continuing to do things the old way. This pandemic has changed all that. 

Perhaps nowhere has this change been so unsparingly swift as in my field—higher education. One day we were teaching students in classrooms, and the next day we had converted totally to remote learning/remote teaching/streaming. That was a whiplash moment for a lot of faculty members, especially the more senior ones, who are uncomfortable with video conferencing for meetings and for classes—or are totally unfamiliar with it. Students have reported that some of them just recorded their lectures and put them out there, having no further interaction with the students. 

But from the students’ point of view, particularly Honors students, they signed up to take a class to have an interaction with a faculty member one way or the other. And then suddenly they’ve got this recorded thing playing on their computer screens, and they’re given an assignment and that’s it. And the assignment gets graded by a Teaching Assistant, so to the students it appears to be a faculty member checking out, when really it is the faculty member doing the best they can under the circumstances. But the fall semester is almost on us, and remote learning/remote teaching/streaming will continue to play a big part in what we do day in and day out. The faculty are training, practicing, and gearing up. 

THE BUSINESS WORLD has always gone through cycles. Back in the early 90s, IBM decided that the salespeople shouldn’t be in the office, that they should be out in the field talking to customers. So they scrapped dedicated workspaces for all the salespeople and re-created their offices in a fashion that was known as “hoteling”—if you had 40 sales people, you might have 10 of these cubicles available at any one time, and the salespeople would schedule their time in headquarters to use one of the cubicles during their temporary stay. 

But the problem with that was that if you required people to work at home, then by law the company was required to provide them an office setup and a series of other things. The IBM Powers-That-Be thought that through and decided to actually go ahead and do it anyway, because it was cheaper than having office buildings. So, they sent everybody home to their own company-furnished workstations. 

It wasn’t five years later that IBM decided that all those folks out there not talking to each other probably wasn’t that good an idea after all, and soon they started creating office space again. But this time they went to an open-office concept, meaning nobody had any privacy. That’s been a disaster for everybody but sales and marketing people. Sales and marketing people love that buzz, but for the rest of us it’s both an annoyance and a productivity killer. 

Companies have always jumped from one way of operating to another, changing when it’s clear that the way they were doing things wasn’t working. We call this “going guardrail to guardrail.” The difference between then and now is that companies were following, or chasing, organizational trends. They could change their minds. 

Today’s work-from-home mandate isn’t the result of a trend. We may eventually have some choices in the matter, but I doubt we’ll ever go all the way back to what we used to call “normal.” This is the “new normal,” and it will continue to evolve. Meanwhile, technology and human nature will keep clashing in the crucible of business. Long term, my money’s on technology.