Understanding and ameliorating the dark side of digital workplaces

Although arguably the first digital workplace was PLATO Group Notes in 1976, the concept of the digital workplace is usually attributed to Jeffery Bier.  Bier founded Instinctive Technologies in 1996 to provide collaboration applications based on the knowledge that Bier and his co-founders had gained at Lotus Corporation. Bier set out five criteria for a digital workplace. It had to be comprehensible (minimal learning curve), contagious, cross-enterprise, complete and connected.  Much has been written about the potential benefits of implementing digital workplaces, mostly focused gains in productivity and innovation for which reliable metrics seem to be few and far between.

Over the last few years, the concepts of wellness and mindfulness in the work environment have substantially increased in visibility. The impact of working practices on the welfare of employees has certainly been more widely appreciated since the advent of the Covid pandemic. In 2014 Paul Miller and Elizabeth Marsh co-authored The Digital Renaissance of Work, and since that time Elizabeth has been very active in the areas of digital workplace strategy, digital skills, the future of work and technostress and is currently undertaking part time doctoral research at the University of Nottingham on technostress and mindfulness.

Elizabeth, together with Elvira Perez Vallejos and Alexa Spence (colleagues at the University), has written an immensely important research paper entitled “The digital workplace and its dark side: An integrative review” which has now been published under an open access license in Computers in Human Behaviour. The authors have identified 194 studies which focus on some of what might be termed ‘dark side’ issues of digital workplace implementation and synthesized the outcomes and implementations with considerable insight.

The analysis runs to 21 pages. I am not going to try and summarise the individual elements of the paper because in my opinion if you have any current managerial role in digital workspace management you really should download this paper and read it with care. To motivate you to do so I will quote from the conclusions of the paper.

“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.”

Going back to Bier’s elements of a digital workplace perhaps a sixth, considerate, should be added.

See also The dark side of information and The dark sides of people analytics: reviewing the perils for organisations and employees. for related research into some of the other psychosocial risks at work.  Both links lead to open access versions of the research.

Martin White