TECHNOLOGY was meant to make our lives easier, especially when it came to work. Yet the opposite is happening and it is making life more complicated and more stressful.
For instance, 30 years ago if you needed to check a bank balance you would have phoned the bank. Now it is done either online or at an ATM.
"You would have thought that people wouldn't need to call their banks anymore," says Tom Monahan, the chairman of CEB, a US-based advisory company.
But the opposite has happened. Call centre volumes haven't declined as a result of the automation of this process. In fact they have remained fairly consistent, according to Monahan.
And the average length of time it takes to resolve a call centre query has grown over the years.
That's because the simple processes are now automated.
"That which can be automated has been, so what is left over is that much more complex," says Monahan. He says the questions that are now asked of call centre agents are far more complicated.
"So even jobs that on the surface look the same - for instance, in a bank a customer service representative or branch manager - have become more complicated because the questions that are now asked by clients are more complex than just wanting a simple bank statement."
This, combined with the increasing complexity of organisations, is taking its toll on employees.
"The 500th company in the Fortune 500 companies today is about three to four times the size of 500th company 25 years ago." This means the number of people an employee has to deal with in a job has gone up substantially.
According to CEB, 57% of the employees it surveyed reported an increase in the number of co-workers they worked with in other geographic locations. It found that 60% of employees reported that they worked with 10 or more people on a day-to-day basis.
"We may have more specialists working in an organisation but to get an answer - say to a question on a particular banking product - will take longer, as you need to find that person in a larger organisation," says Monahan.
This, along with the introduction of "big data", the exponential growth in computing power, proliferation of business applications and more process automation, has resulted in the increased outsourcing of routine work.
The impact is that work in general has become more data- and information-intensive, less routine and more "exceptions-based", says CEB.
"Working with data and information has become core to most employees' jobs, with 76% of employees reporting a significant increase in time spent working with data and information," CEB said in a report on the new workplace.
Employees surveyed by CEB reported that their jobs were getting harder, with more than two-thirds reporting that it had become more complex and 80% saying their workloads had increased.
This has been driven, in part, by the introduction of "big data" to the workplace.
Big data is the term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that they become difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications.
According to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the quantity of information generated from the dawn of time until 2003 was some five exabytes (one exabyte is one quintillion bytes). This amount of data is now created every two days.
"Businesses have long understood that there is value - somewhere - to be extracted from this burgeoning volume of data," BCG said in a research note titled "Big data's five routes to value".
As a result of this, most employees and new jobs these days are knowledge workers, says Monahan. According to CEB three out of four executives report that more than half of their staff are now knowledge workers.
But the problem is that employees are struggling with their changing roles and the increasing need to handle all this data, which, according to Monahan, doubles every 30 months for the average employee.
This is now starting to have an impact on employees' productivity levels. More than half of the people CEB surveyed said that the stress from their job had increased.
CEB warns that this could limit productivity gains in the future, especially as it says labour productivity gains realised over the past two decades may well be reaching their limit.
"With employees stretched in their jobs, how will organisations achieve performance and productivity advantages - especially in light of the changes taking place in the work environment?" it asks.
It also means companies need to carefully assess who they hire in the future.
"Unfortunately, not all employees have achieved proficiency in being able to find information, analyse it, and use sound business judgment to make decisions," says CEB.
And with business decisions no longer confined to the executive floor, having the right employees has become even more critical.
"Bottom line - organisations will need a different kind of employee, one that is immune to the paralysing complexities of change, willing to collaborate with a broad range of individuals and able to apply judgment in an increasingly knowledge-based role."
WHAT IT MEANS
The amount of information doubles every 30 months
More employees are feeling stressed