News and talks

A chat with Rich Burns of Solent LEP on being a Digital Human in the workplace

20 April 2023 (In-person UX Studio) –  updated 7 July 2023

In this interview with Rich Burn from Solent Partners, at the CCIXR building at Portsmouth University, Carolyn talks about technology in the workplace, and the impact this tech use has on us as individuals. 

You can either watch it in situ, or on YouTube. A transcript of the interview is included below:

RB: So, we are here at the Portsmouth CCIXR building at Portsmouth University. Amazing space with this amazing background, which we may decide to change – we may use it, I don’t know, we’ll see how we get on. So, Carolyn, tell me a bit about yourself and what you do.

CF: Ok, so I’m a CyberPsychologist, and I specialise in workplace technology use. So, how we, as adults, use technology in a work environment – and that is in the office, as well as remote and hybrid. Basically, how technology impacts us and how we use technology to get our work done and be more productive. But, really it is about how it affects us personally, and what we can do about it.

RB: So, what is CyberPsychology?

CF: CyberPsychology is a relatively new discipline in the world of psychology. It’s only really been around in the 1990’s when computers started becoming a big part of our lives and it’s grown and developed from there. The majority of what CyberPsychologists do is what they look at how we use technology and how it changes us, both from a society level but also, more importantly, how it changes us as individuals – not just our mental wellbeing, but actually how we think, how we behave, how we engage with others, how we see ourselves.

The majority of CyberPsychologists look at how children and young adults use technology on social media, in the classroom, at home. There’s a lot of mental health [issues] that they look at in terms of cyberbullying, self-image issues – like the impact of social media on eating disorders, addictive behaviour and gaming.

I don’t look at that element of that, I look more at adults. So, it is really about the fact that we make tools (being gadgets) and then they make us and change us, and change who we are as human beings. That’s really what we look at as CyberPsychologists.

RB: And your background, Carolyn, so you come from a Marketing background.

CF: I do.

RB: Which is what led you on your journey, so talk a little bit more about that.

CF: So, I trained as a Marketer and went into FMCG corporate marketing. I did that for 15 years doing New Product Development and Branding and Communication. And then, social media started coming into being a big part of what marketing is. And, I decided that’s not what I really wanted to do, because I have a much broader, strategic background. So, I left marketing completely and went back to Uni and started again from year 1 and retrained as a psychologist. And then discovered CyberPsychology and did a Masters in CyberPsychology.

But one of the biggest reasons I went into Psychology was because what fascinated me most about marketing was how people engage with products from a ‘I’ve got £10, what am I going to spend it on’ [perspective], and why do they do that. Why do they spend it on this product and not on that product? And why do they make those decisions? So, that’s really why I went into Psychology, but then got side-tracked by Cyber, and just went down the ‘rabbit hole’ of technology [use].

And I love it, because I love technology, I love gadgets. So, it was just part of my passion of combining those two things of human behaviour and the engagement with the gadgets we wear and the gadgets we use.

RB: I love the fact that you point out it’s the gadgets we now wear. Because once upon a time, it was just the gadgets we use. Now, it’s the gadgets we wear. It’s such an evolving industry. Now, the marketing bit is very interesting, because I’ve got a marketing background. We’ve talked about this before, Carolyn, on a podcast we did previously, but it is a bit impact that it is having. Obviously seeing the dawn of AI and ChatGPT. I got introduced to AutochatGPT and told I should be using those. Still not gone down that road yet.

But, from the point of view of this Digital Live series, which is what this recording is about… the skills that we use… there is terminology that comes around digital, I mean digital is a vast subject. But there are terms such as ‘digital natives’, ‘digital immigrants’, and they are bandied around to describe those who were born around the turn of the century and grew up with a super-confident use in digital gadgets, and those who had a more analogue-sort-of childhood, so kind-of before this, and are less confident using gadgets. How do we go about improving the skills of those who are digital immigrants and reduce the generational divide around technology use.

CF: That’s one of my favourite questions about digital generations. Because the reality is that in general, generations don’t exist anymore [in the workplace]. I’m 50, I grew up with Donkey Kong and Pac Man. So, I became confident using technology in my younger years, in my teen years. By the time I started work in the early 90’s, or the mid-90’s, I was already using computers at work. I already had my own email address. I had my own mobile phone. So, I was already confident with technology by that point. My contemporaries, who went to Uni with me back in the day, are senior managers in big companies. So, in my head, the majority of that digital divide isn’t in the corporate environment. It isn’t in the work environment at all. The only difference is the confidence that people have in their ability to use technology.

Once people leave work, yes, when you get to your 70s and 80s, they didn’t grow up with that basic [digital] technology that we had when we playing computer games in our youth. So, there is less of a confidence in picking up a new mobile phone and trying to figure out how this new Apple works, or this other phone works, or this new upgrade, and I don’t want to watch because someone is tracking me. There is less confidence in the ability to use it. But, from a work context, I don’t believe there is a generational digital divide anymore. It’s in the confidence level and the digital intelligence level that we see there are some differences.

But, even then, we see some people who are not at all confident with technology and there are older people who will just pick up a new thing and they will be able to figure out how to use the app or the gadget. So, I think we need to drop that whole narrative we have around the digital divide. I think it’s not healthy for us as older people and it also puts too much pressure on the younger people to perform digitally in the work environment.

RB: So, is the difference then just personality traits – you know in terms of, you know ‘I’m ok with using this technology, I won’t even think about it, I’ll just figure it out’?

CF: I think it comes down to digital resilience and digital intelligence. And they’re talking about digital confidence and digital intelligence being one of the big things now, that people measure when using gadgets.

Digital Intelligence is your ability to actually use stuff. It encompasses how you feel and how you operate with technology.

Digital Resilience is about being able to get over stuff quickly. So, if you are a victim of cyberbullying, how quickly do you get over it? If you are struggling with something digitally, how quickly do you figure it out.

Digital Confidence is ‘how quickly can I pick up this new app or new gadget and figure it out myself?’

I think that really is part of what we need to start looking at for people in terms of how they engage with new technology.

So, I don’t think it is around personality. I am a social extrovert, but an introvert by nature. I wouldn’t say it’s harder for me to pick up technology than an extrovert. It does come down to core skills and core confidence in our own abilities – rather than personality type.

Basic demographic factors don’t play into our ability to engage with technology, or even psychographic [factors] – unless it comes to our confidence levels and our resilience and our ability to actually pick up the technology.

RB: You use a couple of terms there. So, you mentioned resilience actually which is a term I’m going to pick up on. And we talked about confidence, and another term is digital intelligence as well, that I keep hearing about. They’re starting to be used a lot more in media and in companies. But, what do these mean, and are there ways to build these skills in people?

CF: Well, digital resilience, I think like any form of resilience, can be built. And digital confidence, again, it can be built. But I think one of the key things with each of those in terms of [the] confidence and ability to pick up gadgets – if someone is working remotely, I think it is about identifying how confident they are in using new technology or picking up new skill sets around app use or technology use. Being able to identify if someone is struggling is an important thing for us as businesses to look into.

I did some research during the first lockdown of the pandemic, and one of the things that came out of that is, about people’s [improvement in] self-confidence in their ability to use technology. If they are sitting in an office, it is easy to say, ‘Jo Bloggs, can you help me with this’, or ‘IT can you sort this out?’. When you’re at home with no ability to actually pull someone in to help you, you had to figure it out yourself. The level of what we call ‘computer self-efficacy’, which is basically confidence, grew exponentially during the pandemic, because we had to figure it ourselves. We couldn’t just lean on someone else, because we couldn’t be bothered [or were too worried] to work it out ourselves.

So, that is really important for businesses to identify and give people the training, and support that they need, to help them through the process of gaining that confidence. So, whether or not it’s sending them on a computer course or giving them links to YouTube videos on how to use this app. Whatever that looks like – it’s about being able to identify those people who struggle with picking up new technology.

When it comes to digital intelligence, I think it’s slightly tricker to train someone in. But I think that comes with confidence and resilience. It’s once you have that confidence and resilience; you then gain the ability to figure stuff out and move onto new bits of technology and new gadgets. Because the more you learn, the more confident you become, the more intelligent you become. It’s like learning anything. When you first start out learning, it’s all very complicated. But, you quickly build up that basic automatic knowledge.

RB: So, when we put that into the workplace, then, where does that responsibility sit, do you think? Is that the individual, or is that the business to kind-of support that, or is it a blend of both?

CF: I think it’s a blend of both. I think it’s very difficult sometimes for individuals to put their hands up and say, ‘I’m struggling’.

RB: I agree.

CF: Because if they are struggling with something, it may indicate that they are not very good at their job. But actually, they could be incredibly talented, have a lot of knowledge and skillset, but if they are seen to not be able to work a programme – like Excel documents – they may think that they are being perceived as not very good at their job. And that may also reduce their productivity levels. So, they may be the most competent person, or the most skilled person in their department, but if they can’t use an Excel spreadsheet, or the tools, they may come across as the least productive, or the least able. So, to put your hand up and say, ‘I’m really struggling with this, I need help’, is one of the first things.

Also, from a team manager perspective, is having that open mind and seeing the difference between their competency – or the skillset they are being employed for – and their ability or maybe not being as familiar with the technology as they could be and giving them the support that they need.

So, it could be really a conversation between managers and individuals. Individuals putting their hand up, managers being open to that, non-judgemental, and businesses providing some element of: ‘this is a fund, or a training programme that we provide that cheap or easy or we can send someone on’. So, having that culture that’s open to … not everyone knows how to use software programmes. You may have used Word or Apple programmes in your previous job, and actually, this is slightly different, so you need more training. And that’s ok. But it’s about having that open culture, having those honest conversations to support people in actually doing the job that they are hired to do.

RB: And then what about potentially measuring that? Would that be an easy [thing]. In my mind, I’m thinking, if you were to ask someone about their confidence using digital on a score of zero to ten, I guess that’s one way. In my mind that you can look at a progression of that. Is there any other…

CF: Giving or asking someone to score from one to ten is very relative.  

RB: Or one to seven. I heard on the radio this morning. It shouldn’t be one to ten.

CF: Or even that, my five could be your three. So, it’s all relative. I think part of that is about outputs in terms of: if someone can’t use Excel, well actually in two months’ time are they better at it? Are they asking less questions? And I think it’s a both/and. I it’s a conversation of: I think I can do this better than I did before, ‘manager, do you think I can do it better, and am I providing the output that you need in order for you to meet the bottom line and do the job that you’ve employed me to do?’

So, I think it’s difficult to measure, and I don’t think there should be, ‘well, you have to get 70% on this Excel test. It is about: ‘are you using the tools that is needed within this programme to do your job well. Yes or no? And if no, or not competent enough, then how do we actually solve that?’

It’s a really difficult thing to say, ‘this is how you need to make it work’.

RB: And I’m so glad to have you involved in what we are doing, because a lot of what I’m seeing with the Digital Skills Partnership across the whole of the South East is because of that difficulty in measuring these things like confidence and motivation and resilience. We are not seeing a lot of it being measured and actually it has been avoided in terms of being talked about [and] discussed. But it’s a massive problem. It’s a massive problem, I think.

CF: It is a massive problem and there could be questionnaires that you can do to measure someone’s confidence in technology. But again, they are self-completion questionnaires. So, again, it’s relative. I can fill in a questionnaire and say, ‘I’m really confident’, but actually I’m not, because I don’t want to give them the impression that I don’t know what I’m doing.

So, there are ways to measure it. But, even then it’s subjective.

How do we solve it? I think it’s a really big project that needs to happen. I think part of it is changing the narrative … If I’m constantly being told that I’m too old to actually figure it out, I’m too old to engage with this technology, I’m going to start believing it and I’m not going to have that confidence.

I did some training with some apprentices who had just come out of University, and one of the things that they said was, ‘well, old people don’t know how to use technology’. And I’m like, ‘well, actually you don’t know how to use business technology. You know how to use social media.’ But in their head, they’ve been told so often that they are the digitally smart ones. And they are actually the ones who know how to make [tech] work, and old people are not actually all that competent.

I think that as a society and, in the media especially, we have to change that conversation on its head and say, ‘We are all competent. We are just competent in different areas.’ There are so many different gadgets, there’s so many different apps and technology. And so many different functionalities we use technology for. Just because I don’t use VR in gaming, doesn’t mean I don’t know how to do a good Excel document – and that’s what I need to do my job. And, on top of that, one of my pet peeves…

RB: Go on, get it all out there Carolyn…

CF: …is that I spend a lot of time with SMEs. One of the big things they do, is they give a 20-year-old their social media platform for their business. And, from a marketing perspective, that really grates against my sense of branding, because they are very good at their personal social media, but they don’t have the communication skills. They don’t have the ability to put forward a business scenario to the right audience. They can do a great TikTok video, but you don’t do a TikTok [type] video on LinkedIn. Or, they’ll put the company communication on TikTok, which is not the audience. The audience is on Instagram, or it’s on LinkedIn, or it’s on Twitter.

So, they have competence in a specific area of social media. And a specific way of doing it. But not corporate communication. So, that is one of my pet peeves – is just handing over [the] responsibility of their front face of their media communication to a twenty-something-year-old. And some of them are brilliant and I will not take that away from them. But, in general, they don’t yet have the business acumen and the communication skillsets that they need to do a really good job for a young company, or any small to medium-sized business.

RB: I think, the way I see it in a very simplistic form – when it comes to this kind of using technology and digital is this kind of love and fear. It’s as simple as that. There are those that love it and embrace it naturally. Whether they are people who would love and embrace more things in general, I don’t know, but it’s the fear factor that, you know. That example you just gave of that business owner perhaps giving that responsibility. I think there’s an element of fear in that. Not, ‘I don’t understand it’, But, I’m going to get someone in, and tick that box to be able to do it’. Because there is a lot more fear that I’m seeing – especially for instance, we touched on: AI, ChatGPT. People are starting to do this, and step back from it. You know. Where’s it gonna go, where is it gonna end up? But, the fear is definitely there.

CF: I think the fear of the unknown is true in any area. It’s that, ‘I don’t feel competent enough’. Especially with grown-ups, because we should know how to do things, and I think a lot of times when there is an area where we not competent in, we’re judgement ourselves in that and feeling, ‘well, actually I can’t do it, and I don’t know how to, and I don’t want to be seen as being not very good, and failing. So, I’d rather give it to someone else and not go down that road’. Sometimes, we’re just not brave enough. I think that is one of the things we need to do is just be brave, and just say, ‘actually, it’s ok to fail. It’s ok to mess up slightly. But I’m still better at understanding the communication I need to put out there, so much better at other things that this is something I can relatively easily learn’. It’s the knowledge base – and going back to my example of small businesses, my knowledge base is much more important than not getting the video right. And, I think as grown-ups we also have lived in this world of perfectionism, and expectations around perfectionism. And, the younger generation haven’t done that, because they’ve done TikTok videos and they’ve done filters, and other things to improve their ‘non-perfection’ and they’re ok with that non-perfection. I think as an older generation, we’re not so ok with that.

RB: Yeh, I agree. What about motivation? Cause, for instance, we’ve touched on using technology in the workplace and the motivation there, you would assume, is you being told, perhaps, that that is what you need to do in order to do your role? But I guess more in your day-to-day life, motivation – I don’t know, what’s your thoughts on it? How should we be driven to use technology? How should we see it? How should we be motivated by it – or not?

CF: I think, one of the things we do, generally, is: a shiny new gadget comes out and we embrace it. Well, my friend’s got a new smartwatch and look at all the things it can do, so I’m going to buy one too. We don’t step back and go, ‘well, what impact is this going to have on me?’ So, there is a theory in CyberPsychology about technology being passive or active. And I think that’s really the wrong way to look at it. I think it’s about us taking on technology in an active or a passive way.

So, I chose not to have a smartwatch, for this exact reason that I know my boundaries and I know that if I get a smartwatch, I’m going to go down a rabbit hole of looking at it every 5 seconds and every notification, every email I’m going to be just – my arm is going to get stuck in this position, because I’m going to be looking at it all the time.

RB: I think there should be a new emoji that’s this now – or a dance.

CF: Exactly – a TikTok dance. And even if you do have a smartwatch, maybe it’s sitting back and saying, ‘actually, what impact is this having on me? How has my behaviour changed? How am I thinking about myself? How am I thinking about others? Am I spending that time with others? What is important in life for me? And am I actually embracing those things that are important in life, or am I being distracted by gadgets that I own, and things that are happening in China, or Outer Mongolia, or America or some random influencer? Are they more important – the virtual world – or is my physical world more important?’

So, I’m not so sure it’s about motivation, I think it’s about taking back control and on a semi-regular basis, sitting down with yourself and going, ‘Well, I’ve got this extra technology. I’ve got all this stuff, what am I going to do about it? How am I going to fit this into my life and make it work for me? Or am I okay with being controlled by it and randomly going to dive into Alice’s Wonderland?’ And that’s OK, but it’s about you making that choice.

So many times (I’d say almost 3-6 months, that’s why I say ‘so many times’) I have to sit down with myself and go, ‘I’ve set these boundaries for myself. These are the things that I’m going to do. This is how I’m going to do my workday’. And then I start slipping and go, ‘oh, I’m just going to check this email. I’m just going to do this.’ And then I end up at 11 o’clock at night staring at my phone, when actually my boundary was 8pm, all devices off and in my office and not look at them again. And then I have to take a step back again and go, ‘this is not important. This is important: having conversations with my family, with my friends, going out, doing things with people. That’s important.’ So, I have to do a check and go, ‘no’.

So, motivation can come into that, but I think when taking up new technology, it is about thinking through first what this is going to do to me and then, after 6 months going, ‘how is this really impacting me and others around me?’. I say ‘others around me’, because research shows that grown-ups or adults who use their technology and look at work emails after hours – it doesn’t just affect them. What they found is that children within the household have high stress and anxiety levels and are higher than those who don’t. For the simple reason that if you are looking at your phone, and you get cross and angry, the children see that. They see the reaction. They see the anger. They take it on board as something they’ve done. Because that’s what children do. They don’t rationalise that, ‘that’s their phone, there’s something going on with their phone’. And, it changes the atmosphere in the house, it changes the way the parent engages with them because they put the phone down and they’re still angry. So, there is much higher levels of stress and anxiety amongst younger children with parents who still look at their emails on their phones after hours.

Also, the parents are looking at their phones. They are not giving their children 1-2-1 time. Which means that the children aren’t engaging and learning social skills. And, that is how we learn social skills, by practising – especially when we’re young. So, we often talk about how with children, that we have to reduce their screen time, we have to do this, and we have to give them boundaries. But we forget that children emulate our behaviour and we have to display that for our own children, our own values and this is what I choose to do – or this is what we choose to do as a family. We choose to be present. We choose to not have phones at the dinner table. We choose to not… – whatever that looks like.

RB: Do you think we are in a world where most people recognise that – their own self-control in regard to technology? Or, do you think we are more in a world where people aren’t even thinking about it – they are just using the latest technology, the latest watch and they’re just in it, and don’t reflect on it that much.

CF: The latter. The vast majority of people just absorb new technology – because the gadgets are fun, it’s exciting. And it increases dopamine levels. That’s engaging for me and, life can be rubbish, at times, so that’s a really great escape. Before the pandemic hit, there was research done on people who segmented their work and home life, and how they actually managed those boundaries. And they found that only a third of workers actually had a strategy in place. So, whether they segmented work and home completely, or they integrated home and work life. If they had young children, they need to come home at 3, pick the children up, bath and bedtime and go back to work from 8 to 10 and they did a couple more hours. They’re integrators and it worked for them; but they had that strategy. And two thirds didn’t. They just let technology happen to them.

During the pandemic, it just all went out the window and no-one had any segmentation strategies. I would suggest that it has defaulted back to one-third and two-thirds. A third of people have different strategies than they did before because most people have some element of a hybrid work scenario, but they probably still have some element of strategy. And it’s only when people get to the point of burnout or massive stress or anxiety that they go, ‘Something’s gotta change. I can’t keep doing this or else I’m going to fall apart’. And that’s when they put their strategies in place. But, up to that point, often, people just let technology happen to them. And they just take more and more on board. And they don’t sit down and think, ‘What is going on? How am I dealing with this? Am I heading towards burnout?’ And most people don’t know they are going to burn out, until they actually do.

RB: Yes, and then they’ve got to deal with that. Do people, from what you have experienced, associate that with that technology use? Or, is it lots of other factors that come into the world that they probably think it’s that that’s causing the burnout?

CF: I would be very surprised if people say that, ‘Looking at my emails at 8’oclock at night is causing me stress and anxiety and burnout.’ The majority of the time, your technology use is influenced by the corporate culture, your own personal preferences for technology, your own boundaries, your expectations of work, how old you are, where you are in the corporate ladder, how much of a workaholic you are, how ambitious you are. All those factors. Also, actually, home life – in terms of home expectations of whether or not you should turn your technology off. E.g. if your partner is a workaholic and you’re just bored and you just go and work. There’s all these different factors that fall into the realm of the decisions you make about your technology use.

So, what we often do, when we are stressed and anxious, we blame someone else, or we blame other factors. Because it’s not our fault. Because when we take it on board as, ‘Actually, I’m doing this’, we than have to take responsibility for it. Some people do, and that’s amazing. But the vast majority [say], ‘My boss is annoying. He makes me do this. I have to be on Slack at 10 o’clock’ because my whole team is still responding to Slack messages at 2 o’clock, and if I’m not part of the conversation, I get into the office the next morning, the decision’s been made [and] I haven’t inputted into it, so I feel like a bad worker, or I may be seen as someone who is not good enough and may not get promoted’.

So, there is a lot of underlying factors that come into the decisions you make about your technology use after hours. So, it’s really up to the individual to own up to that, in some ways, and put those boundaries in place and get back that control. Make those decisions and have those conversations with their managers and teams saying, ‘this is what I need to do, this is how I need to do my life because…’. And if that isn’t working for the team and the manager, maybe they need to have another think about where they are working. And, I know this sounds quite harsh, but to not burn out, it’s really important to make sure you are looking after yourself. In the same way you look after yourself from a physical perspective, you have to look after yourself from a mental and psychological perspective. So, what choices are you making.

RB: I’m going to put this on you now, Carolyn, as an individual. So, the point of this Digital Lives series is kind-of to showcase from a business perspective, from an individual perspective, from a community perspective, from a school perspective and students. But, it is to look at the individuals and our own associations with technology – and we discussed some of those elements. But, we’ve all got an experience with digital, or technology – whatever you want to call it. So, the question to you: what thing in your digital life would you change to help with either your business, your motivation, your own personal development, mental health – what would you change, for you in your own experiences?

CF: I’m not sure there is more that I would change right not. But there are things I’ve changed in the past that I try to stick to, the boundaries that I put in place and constantly break and then need to reset myself, is that I have different technology for different spheres of life. So, I have my personal phone, I have my personal iPad and my work laptop – and I try my best not to integrate the three. So, I need to set boundaries from a time perspective of: this is work time and this is personal time. Mostly because when I was in marketing, I would work every hour that I was awake. And if something needed to be done, it needed to be done. Working evenings, weekends, through the night. Whatever needed to be done to meet that deadline, that’s what I did. And, I burnt out emotionally and psychologically, I just got exhausted. And I know I can slip down that road [again] very quickly. It’s a very slippery slope for me.

So, I have to put those boundaries in place for me. Doing things like closing my laptop at the end of the day is a great signal for me that my work is done, my work personality is over. Now I’m wife perspective, friend personality, daughter…

RB: So, literally that click of the laptop is your trigger to…

CF: Yes, I’ve got my workbook and I try to write things down as much as possible rather than put everything on notes, because I need to switch off. So, I have an A6 little notepad that I take with me, outside of my big A4 [notepad] that I leave on my desk. I take that with me because if something comes up, if I remember to do something, I write it in there. I don’t pick up my phone and write notes, because I need to put that down, I need to put that away. So, those are the things I have done and continually need to do. So, that’s why I think I probably wouldn’t do anything new. It’s more about I constantly need to is take a rain check on how much those boundaries have slipped. Because, as I said before, they often do. Someone calls and I say, ‘ooh, I’ll quickly take this’, or, ‘I’m meant to finish at 6.30 and ooh, I’ll just finish this and it ends up being 8 o’clock at night. And, I try leave my phone upstairs on Sundays so I don’t look at my screen, and [then I go], ‘ooh, let me just… let me just…’. Those boundaries need to be constantly realigned, realigned, readjusted. And really that’s for my own mental health and just keeping myself present when I need to be. And living. That’s important for me, human connection is an important part of who I am, and sitting on a screen, I don’t get that.

RB: Thank you, Carolyn.

CF: You are welcome.