Tech shame and remote working: The full story
Interviews / Opinions

Tech shame and remote working: The full story

When COVID-19 hit businesses, tech came to the rescue. Making remote work a possibility, it swept in like a superhero to solve everyone’s problems. Traditional barriers to communication and collaboration were destroyed. The age-old arch-villain, the physical location, was sidelined. Safety returned to the working environment. And everyone worked happily (and remotely) ever after.

~The end~

It’s a heartwarming story. And, in many ways, a fairly accurate description of the perception at the time. But fast-forward a few years, and inconsistencies in the narrative are beginning to emerge. The twist in the tale? Technology that once saved the day is now prompting ripples of unease.

Dubbed “tech shame”, many employees now admit to be battling (mentally and physically) with tech as much as they’re benefiting from it. And taking it personally.

Given the increasing importance of tech in the workplace, it’s a worrying admission. And worthy of proper investigation. But to date, much of the debate has been narrow in its focus. It’s just something that affects older generations, they say. Or, something that’s a result of the relationship between Generation Z and technology—younger employees are expected to be tech-savvy, so feel ashamed when they’re not.

We think differently. This isn’t just about generations. Tech shame isn’t so easily contained.

Time to dig deeper.

What’s tech shame? The sense behind the sentiment

In general terms, tech shame describes the feeling of personal inadequacy experienced by employees who’ve faced a technical challenge in the workplace. It’s about the relationship employees have with the digital infrastructure that’s supposed to empower them. But there’s more to it than that.

Tech shame is the product of three factors: an employee, the technology they use at work, and other people. And it’s that final factor that makes the difference here.

Shame requires an audience. This isn’t just a form of introspection that leaves an employee feeling let down in themselves. This is a sense of public humiliation that leaves employees feeling judged by their peers. And left lacking.

Remote or hybrid workers are particularly susceptible to proximity bias. And more likely to experience tech shame. Not only are they completely reliant on tech, but they’re also often distanced from on-hand support that may be on offer in the office. Working in a room alone, they’re also less able to watch and learn from colleagues.

There are a vast number of potential scenarios that can prompt a feeling of tech shame.

It’s far more than not knowing how to find a misplaced file or fix a display issue on a laptop. It’s the call that you need to make to IT to ask for help with that problem.

It’s more than not being able to screen share or fix an audio problem during a Teams call with a client. It’s the number of people who’ll witness that failure and the potential impact it may have on business or reputation.

It also doesn’t begin and end with an inability to solve your own technical problems. Not being able to help a colleague, customer, or client can also drive feelings of tech shame. And a sense of failure at not meeting expectations.

How to fight tech shame in the workplace | TalentLMS

It’s not all about Gen Z: Who’s most affected by tech shame?

Reports on tech shame focus on research that links the sentiment uniquely with Gen Z employees. Born in a digital age, the assumption is that Gen Z and technology go hand-in-hand. But the truth is, there’s a disconnect between the type of technology that Gen Z employees are familiar with and the technology used in the workplace. Often expected to provide informal “tech support” for coworkers, this group experiences a powerful feeling of shame when they can’t solve their peers’ IT problems. Or meet expectations that are, in truth, unjustified.

But this uncomfortable relationship with workplace tech isn’t unique to Gen Z. While it’s impossible to create a comprehensive list, there are a few key groups of people who are certainly more susceptible to tech shame.

Let’s start with managers. PwC recently surveyed employees of all generations, in a range of roles, across a range of industries worldwide. The focus of the study was their relationship with workplace technology. Stats that emerged indicate that the uneasy relationship with tech is far more widespread than just Gen Z. In fact, over half of all workers questioned (54.5%) said a lack of technical skills was affecting their career progression. But one segment, in particular, stood out. 46% of managers admitted to feeling overwhelmed by technology at work. And an even larger percentage (61%) of managers revealed that they spend more time getting technology to work than they’d like.

Both of these figures suggest that some managers would be prime candidates for tech shame, especially managers who work with distributed teams and really heavily on technology. Like Gen Z employees, expectation levels are higher. But managers also have higher levels of visibility (internally and externally) to contend with. Without the right training or tech background, many may struggle to deliver a consistently flawless public display of technical competency. Or provide on-the-spot solutions to ad-hoc IT issues experienced across their team. And feel inadequate as a result.

But visibility and expectation aren’t the only factors that can drive tech shame. Career experience, personality, and background (financial and academic) also play a part.

Research suggests that to ward off potential tech shame, some remote employees (particularly extroverts and younger workers) invest their own money in buying a better toolkit. It’s an extreme solution. And it’s one that employers need to stamp out. But it happens. And it currently leaves employees who don’t have the money or resources to scale up their tech at home at a disadvantage. And more likely to experience tach shame.

Resilience and confidence play a large part in fighting off tech shame. But some employees will have lower levels of confidence and resilience than others. For many, this will be linked to personality. For others, a sense of academic or professional inferiority may be the cause. Either way, not having the “right” set of emotional resources to fall back on creates another group of workers more vulnerable to tech shame.

Certain under-represented groups are also at risk. Employees returning to work after a period of parental leave may feel out of sync with advancements in tech since they were last in post. Part-time or flexible workers may miss out on ad-hoc developments and IT updates that take place throughout the working week. And on-the-road employees may have to cope with mobile tech that doesn’t match up with the demands of the job.

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The long-term impact of tech shame at work

The word “shame” has only negative connotations. And left unrecognized and untreated, tech shame will negatively affect businesses in the following ways:

  • Engagement: Technology is an essential part of remote and hybrid working. It sets the tone for the overall employee experience. And it can’t be separated from the people agenda. Which means? A bad relationship with tech creates a bad relationship with work.
  • Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I): Tech shame creates silos. It gives certain employees an unfair advantage over others in terms of career progression, visibility, remuneration, and wellbeing. It thrives on unconscious bias. And it has the potential to create a narrow and homogenous workforce.
  • Profits and productivity: With the right toolkit, businesses are better placed to grow and prosper. But only if employees optimize their use of that toolkit. Fear or lack of confidence around technology means missed opportunities. Missed targets. And a poor ROI.
  • Reputation: Whether it’s a Zoom call with a new customer, a Teams presentation of a report to a group of external stakeholders, or a conference call with clients, technology offers a window into your business. Without the same levels of technical confidence across all of your employees, branding can take a hit.
  • Culture: If employees don’t feel comfortable sharing their difficulties around tech, they might hesitate to open up in general. Tech shame has the potential to cultivate a culture of isolation, secrecy, and fear. As well as being huge demotivators, lack of transparency and honesty also breed a workforce that’s hard to manage or develop.

From tech shame to tech-savviness in 5 steps

It’s clear that tech shame exists. It’s not just limited to a select group. And it can be damaging to businesses and employees. But there are specific ways of challenging and preventing it. Let’s look at them.

Democratize training

In Salesforce’s “Future of Work Survey”, UK employees ranked digital skills as the most important in the workplace. However, only 27% felt confident in those skills. And a third complained about a lack of training in this area.

The respondents of PwC’s digital survey go one step further, with an overwhelming majority admitting that they’re willing to spend up to two days a month on training to upgrade their digital skills.

There’s a clear message here.

Lots of your employees need digital skills training, and pretty much all of them want to learn more about digital technology. But they’re not being given the chance. So don’t wait to be asked. And don’t sideline specific groups.

Only by proactively delivering universal learning and development opportunities to everyone can you hope to remove the stigma associated with a digital skills gap. And raise levels of competency across your business.

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Democratize provision

Many employees are underwhelmed by their current workplace technology and remote work experiences.

Only a third agree the toolkit they have at home exceeds their expectations. Nearly half of all employees say they don’t have access to all of the essential office equipment at home. 1 in 10 are struggling with an internet connection that’s not fit for purpose. And, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, over 46% of employees say their companies don’t help them with remote work expenses.

Supporting remote or hybrid working means providing the right infrastructure for everyone. And to counteract tech shame, employers need to check and double-check that all employees have the same level of provision, power, and capability. Again, don’t wait to be asked. Make this requirement mandatory and a regulated part of the remote work training and onboarding process.

Keep in contact

Technology doesn’t stand still. To keep tech shame from the door, it’s important to commit to regular tech check-ins with employees. This could be formally through employee sentiment pulses that include questions about tools and software. Or informally through one-to-ones or team catch-ups.

For this to work, a good relationship between HR and IT is essential. So make sure collaboration between the two teams is encouraged and facilitated.

And don’t just ask about existing resources or processes. Question employees about gaps in provision (for example, what new tools could be introduced to make them more productive). And remember to take action on feedback received. Involving employees in the decision-making and procurement process is a good way to create buy-in and a sense of ownership and engagement with tech from the outset.

Keep talking

Shame thrives on secrecy. Creating a culture of openness, honesty, and support starves tech shame of the conditions it needs to survive.

Use internal communications channels and campaigns, discussion boards and forums, chat rooms, onboarding resources, policy documents, and internal messaging to open up an ongoing dialogue around tech.

Gathering feedback from remote employees and making technology a part of the day-to-day conversation is a great way of normalizing it. That done, employees are more likely to open up and share their experiences about tech (good and bad), ask for help, and offer it too!

Choose the right tools

Let’s face it, some platforms, products, and applications are easier to use than others.

And, while your choice of tech stack alone won’t wipe out tech shame, it can go a long way to reducing it. So look for technology that’s intuitive and easy to integrate with other systems.

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It’s personal (but not private)

With the rise in remote and hybrid working, tech is no longer something employees use in a vacuum. Yes, it’s still something they will have a personal relationship with. But it now also facilitates social interactions and collaboration on a vast and very public scale. And it’s this seismic shift that employers need to recognize strategically.

Eliminating tech shame requires a formal commitment to changing company culture and values. Not just an ad-hoc response to isolated incidents of rumored unease. It also requires a proactive approach. Identifying tech shame in the workplace is a challenge because, by default, people are reluctant to disclose their tech struggles. Which means, employers need to reach out and make the first move.

Follow both of these paths, and you’ll nurture a culture that’s not just tech-sensitive but fully inclusive, proud, and mindful of all the valuable differences that one organization brings to the mix.

Now, that’s how a story should end.

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