The reality of millions of remote home office workers having a ‘digital only’ experience with their employer coupled with the prospect that this may be set to continue for the foreseeable future has put a spotlight on end user computing. The world economic forum future of jobs report suggests that 44% of employees will continue to work in this way post pandemic and in response, IT departments are scrambling to provide a range of user-centric personalized IT services to support them.
Whilst it might be tempting to think of this as a passing fad, in practice far from starting this trend, Covid-19 has simply accelerated a movement that had been running for some time.
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IT in the backdrop of labor economics
The move towards increased user centricity, something long understood in HR circles, has its roots in some of the liberating movements of the 1970s, with the early signs of its impact surfacing just before the outbreak.
In early 2020 the US bureau of labor statistics revealed an unemployment rate of just 3.5%, its lowest level recorded since 1969. Aside from the headline unemployment number, the labor supply data showed more open positions (vacancies) than unemployed for the first time. This tipping point revealed what had been going on quietly in the background for almost 50 years: a slow decline in labor market growth. The availability of mass contraception and greater participation in the work force by women, meant the 1970s saw the start of a large decline in the overall birth rate and with it a commensurate impact on the supply side of the labor market.
Compare the population pyramid today with the 1950s and you will notice a steep drop off of people in their late 30s and early 40s. This is in contrast to the plentiful supply provided by the baby-boomer generation who have all but retired. On the surface, the imbalance of having more jobs than people might sound ideal right now, but many economists forecast that automation will eliminate 20% to 25% of current jobs by the end of the 2020s.
Even with the current Covid-19 crisis many of these fundamentals remain largely unchanged. The Economist predicts the return of at least 90% of the economy in 2021 and Gartner recently stated “Recessions eventually end, and when this one does, companies in many industries will return to an atmosphere where keeping talent happy is a priority.”
Tracking an almost identical timeline is another equally important trend, the move from tangibles to intangibles. Compare fortune 500 companies from the 1970s and today, and you can observe GE, Amoco and Coca Cola have been replaced by Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google. Explore their valuations and sources of wealth creation and yesterday’s companies made their wealth from tangible assets like plants and machinery. Today’s companies make their wealth from intangible assets such as people and intellectual property. A startling illustration of the leverage organizations can make of intangible assets is shown in the comparison of the price/book ratio of the Ford Motor Company at 1.2 and Tesla at a huge 49.
So, not only are employees in diminishing supply, modern companies rely almost exclusively on digital interactions with their workers.
Compounding this problem is the fact that in order to get the kind of wealth creation and market penetration enjoyed by Tesla, you need to both attract and retain the right talent as well as keep them engaged, and this requires rethinking traditional assumptions regarding the provision of IT.
What’s just in the world of IT service?
When we think about ‘provision’ in HR terms we often see it in terms of organizational justice or fairness. To be procedurally just would be to follow the rules, to be distributively just would be to treat everyone the same and to be interactively just would be to treat individuals with due consideration. Managers are often taught that procedural justice trumps distributive justice because following the rules is more important than treating everyone equally. In their eyes, following the rules provides for a predictable environment, and interactive justice is seen as being the least important. Think of any award ceremony and it tends to follow these rules, not everyone wins but the rules are clear.
In my observation, IT practice behaves in a similar way, distributive justice is desired, but procedural justice tends to be the arbiter. You may want that latest laptop, but the ‘rules’ mean that only certain roles can have it. Interactive justice, with individualized consideration is rarely considered.
However, what my research has shown is that when it comes to how the provision of IT impacts employee engagement, the normal rules of organizational justice are turned on their head. What really makes the difference to their levels of engagement is individualized consideration: employees want to be treated personally and care about this more than how others have been treated or what the rules may be.
The other interesting aspect is what moderates this relationship, in other words what makes it better or worse depends on the right level of resource. Again, not something surprising to HR professionals who have long understood that employee engagement is about creating an equilibrium between the demands of a job and resources, the so called job demands resource model.
Many may be familiar with the concept of ‘Flow’ first championed by famed psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—whereby you experience deep task absorption and then wonder where the day has gone and are typically left with a feeling of productivity and satisfaction. This is the same concept: IT services must aim to enhance and not impede the modern digital worker’s state of flow.
In the user-centric world of personalized IT, this means we need to be thinking more like HR professionals and less like IT delivery professionals when it comes to the provision of IT because the future of our organizations depends on it.