In civilised countries, we no longer send miners down a shaft with just a lamp and a shovel. Instead, miners are equipped with a comprehensive set of protective equipment, and every effort is made to ensure that the mine shaft is safe and productive.
In the office environment, it’s no different. There are dozens of international standards covering the lighting level, ceiling heights, ventilation, desk configuration and chair choices. While some offices are more ‘funky’ than others, all follow a set of basic guidelines and expectations on office design.
Why is this?
It’s self-evident that it will be hard to hire and retain staff if they’re expected to work in dark, dingy and dangerous conditions. From a recruitment perspective, leading firms make a big deal of how much better their offices are than the norm.
At a more fundamental level, however, it’s about the ethical responsibility of the employer to provide a suitable working environment. That’s why the rules are enshrined in legislation and international standards, and why Work, Health and Safety (WHS/OHS) departments exist.
With the digital transformation that’s now underway, it’s time to ask: is there an ethical responsibility that applies to the digital workplace?
Three types of harm
In order to understand our ethical responsibilities as employers, it’s useful to unpack what the potential impact of our decisions can be.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of harm:
- Physical harm. This can range from tripping over a stray cable to serious industrial accidents. The impacts can be short-term or life-long.
- Emotional harm. Staff can suffer from stress or anxiety, even to the level of having to take long-term ‘stress leave’.
- Reduction in productivity. If staff don’t have a suitable working environment, it can impact on their ability to actually complete their work, with flow-on consequences.
These are listed in the generally accepted order of importance, with physical harm considered the most significant, then emotional harm and finally productivity issues.
The ability of the physical workplace to generate these three types of harm is well understood, but what does this mean in the digital realm?
Ethical responsibility in the physical and digital realms
|Type of harm||Physical harm||Emotional harm||Reduction in productivity|
|Physical workplace||Impact: ⚫ ⚫ ⚫|
Numerous opportunities for injury exist in the physical workplace, ranging from a strained ankle to permanent impairment and even death.
|Impact: ⚫ ⚪ ⚪|
Poor working conditions can contribute to long-term stress levels of staff, often compounding other employment issues.
|Impact: ⚫ ⚫ ⚫|
Poor workplace design is widely recognised as having a big impact on productivity, which can be a keep-your-job issue for some staff.
|Digital workplace||Impact: ⚫ ⚪ ⚪|
Poor usability of digital interfaces can lead to repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and other related conditions. Digital environments must also consider accessibility requirements, for staff with a wide range of impairments.
|Impact: ⚫ ⚫ ⚫|
Stress and frustration is considered routine for many enterprise systems, but this is clearly not acceptable from an ethical standpoint. The emotional impact can be significant, particularly when systems are used day-in and day-out.
|Impact: ⚫ ⚫ ⚫|
The complexity and poor user experience of many digital workplaces causes very real harm to personal productivity of staff, and the business outcomes of the organisation as a whole.
The next focus for WHS teams?
Is all this a leap too far? While there are very real consequences of bad digital workplaces, these are not yet considered to be ethical issues for most organisations. Nor are they under the remit of HR or WHS teams.
If we see a future where the digital workplace is as important as the physical one, this must inevitably change.
More than just making it hard to recruit staff, bad (or even dangerous) digital workplaces will need to be considered a very real business risk for organisations. So now is the time to start exploring the ethical dimension of digital workplaces, and what that means for design and strategy decisions.