High-Tech Workplace S.O.S.

Out of the blue, I recently started wondering where the expression, “S.O.S.,” came from to connote an emergency. I read that some falsely believed it stood for “save our souls” or “save our ship,” but that, actually, it didn’t stand for words at all, but, rather, Morse code.

So, I, of course, started wondering about how to tap out a distress signal in the office, and how you would do that in a 21st century way. I’ve heard that almost no one uses Morse code anymore (except my editor/former boss, who says he used it years ago to tap out a distress signal in a hotel bathroom he had accidentally locked himself inside). So what is the modern-day, workplace version of a call for urgent help? In most workplaces, “urgent” and emergency” don’t mean anyone is going to die. It usually just means someone stands to lose money.

That, then, brings me to a report I read about last week that predicts machines will do more than half of all work that occurs in offices by 2025. “The World Economic Forum estimates that machines will be responsible for 52 percent of the division of labor as share of hours within seven years, up from just 29 percent today. By 2022, the report says, roughly 75 million jobs worldwide will be lost, but that could be more than offset by the creation of 133 million new jobs,” according to an Associated Press report.

Will a growing percentage of our work transferred to machines mean it will become easier than ever to ask for—and receive—help? Many times, the work I do on a publication’s Website stumps me. I don’t understand what I did to ruin the formatting on a page, or I don’t understand why a photo isn’t appearing where I want it to. The IT employees of my company, who handle my Website, are not based in the same office as me. So when I send out an S.O.S., I am put “in the queue.” I receive an automated message that I’m in the queue to receive support, rather than a reassuring message that help is on the way. Will more machines and algorithms mean more of these “in the queue” messages, or more “help is on the way” messages?

It’s funny that when you call a company, doctor’s office, cable TV service, etc., that uses an automated answering system, help can take more, rather than less, time to be sent. Occasionally, you get a highly developed system in which the artificial intelligence can ask questions and then answer questions, and even perform tasks, like rebooting your TV’s digital programming box. But more often, you spend a long time listening through your options, and then trying to figure out which option most closely matches your issue. Then, after all that, you’re put on hold to wait for a live person. In those cases, wouldn’t it have been more efficient to just have a live person answer the phone in the first place?

In the workplace, with automated systems taking over, I wonder whether it will be a similar phenomenon of a seemingly sophisticated system that makes a show of streamlining services, but actually takes longer than the old-fashioned way, so that instead of providing you with a solution to your problem, you’re placed on hold, or told in a high-tech, digital way, to “take a number,” as if you were in an old-fashioned deli waiting for your order.

Sometimes workplace S.O.S.s have to do with emotional emergencies. Will there be automated systems that walk employees through emotional meltdowns, keeping a valued employee from walking out and quitting, or keeping an employee from losing his or her temper with an important client? With machine-assisted workplaces comes an emphasis on greater efficiency and productivity, and with that, an increase in stress. Instead of having natural breaks that occur when you have to wait for a letter to be received by snail mail, or a task to be done that used to take a day or two, communication and tasks often are completed immediately. There is less time to pause to catch your breath. In that circumstance, there will be a need for on-demand emotional help. How might you provide that to employees? Could it be a psychological service you contract with that allows frazzled, on-the-brink employees to send emotional S.O.S. signals by text, e-mail, or phone?

More automation potentially means products and services delivered faster to customers, and, when done right, streamlined tasks for employees. But it’s important to remember that those machines will be interacting with humans who come with complex emotional systems that aren’t as easily reprogrammed. What kind of troubleshooting mechanism should these systems offer to employees, so they can both complete their work and remain emotionally well enough to stay in their jobs for the long term?

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