An overview of the dark side of digital workplaces

In the mid-1980s I was working for Link Resources, a US consulting firm specialising in digital media research owned by International Data Corp. One of the areas the firm specialized in was that of teleworking and telecommuting, brought on by the arrival of personal computers and better data networks. There was an immense about of enthusiasm for the benefits of this technology.  Link Resources did it best to provide a balanced view about both the benefits and the challenges.

Fast forward to the advent of digital workplace! From a supplier side perspective this is the future and they can supply it today. They cite quite a number of customer case studies to demonstrate the benefits, and it was with some trepidation that back in 2012 I published a paper entitled Digital workplaces – vision and reality in which I highlighted the lack of attention being paid to the reality side of the equation. I commented “Providing this environment could transform the way in which work is accomplished both in terms of individual and organizational productivity and competitiveness. Understanding organizations through an ethnological and cultural perspective will be essential to the design and management of this transformation.”

Over the last decade I have had many very useful conversations and exchanges of research with Elizabeth Marsh, who is currently working on a PhD in the School of Psychology at University of Nottingham with the benefit of a significant amount of experience as a digital workplace/intranet consultant. We have a common interest in looking at digital workplace development from what might be termed an occupational psychology perspective, though that now seems to be an outdated concept.

I was delighted to see that Elizabeth has now published a preliminary paper The digital workplace and its dark side: An integrative review jointly with  Elvira Perez Vallejos and Alexa Spence. This paper is published as Open Access so there is absolutely no reason why you should not immediately download this paper and read it. It might take you a little while as the paper runs to 21 pages and over 200 citations to the literature. These citations indicate the wealth of research that has been carried out into the challenges that you will face gaining enthusiastic adoption for new working processes. So much of what I read in blogs and press releases takes a sample of one, or perhaps a larger group using the same software, and extrapolating this to a ubiquitous level.

I am not going to try to summarise the review but I will quote from the conclusion about the outcomes of the review.

“For organisations, it highlights the need to be vigilant to the potential unintended negative consequences of digital working in order that these can be properly understood and minimised through improvements to the technology itself and related norms and practices, as well as interventions to help individuals cope and even flourish in the increasingly prevalent digital world of work. Indeed, given the widespread shift toward hybrid working post-pandemic, it may be time to elevate the attention given to the dark side effects, as well as the language used to describe them. Unintended negative consequences sound unfortunate; whereas psychosocial hazards and harms have the ring of important workplace issues. Findings from this review suggest that the potential impact of the psychosocial harms that emanate from digital working on employees’ well-being and performance should be afforded serious and sustained management attention alongside other physical and psychosocial risks at work.”

The journal Computers in Human Behaviour covers a wide range of issues relating to the adoption of technology into the organisation. As an example I would suggest that you also read An examination of remote e-working and flow experience: The role of technostress and loneliness. This is also an Open Access paper and reading the two papers together may cause you to consider your 2022 digital workplace adoption strategy from a rather different but very important perspective.

Martin White