Why people are important
Brace yourself, I’m about to have a curmudgeonly moan about technology.
The other day, I went to the bank, to help my daughter open a bank account. Our local branch had been closed down some years ago, and so I had to go to the nearest large regional branch, some kilometres away.
I was surprised to discover that there were no tellers any more. The bank had been turned into a big square open room with “self-service” machines. One staff member running from person to person. Several worried-looking elderly parents stood in front of us in the queue, accompanied by adult children as interpreters. I heard Greek, Farsi and Cantonese as we stood in line. When we got to the front of the queue, the slightly harassed-looking but very pleasant young man said that we should have made an online appointment, and that we had to come back another day.
After that we went to a department store to pick something up. Again, the checkouts were “self-service”, but of course, I put my handbag in the bagging area, and the system freaked out. Again, the sole pleasant but slightly harassed-looking staff member had to come and assist me.
This got me thinking. Everything is moving “self-service” now. You don’t get to speak to a real person face-to-face unless something goes wrong. There are online forms, checkboxes, chat bots, helplines, online forms, scanners, but often only one or two real people, often overworked and underpaid.
The same is true at university. Our desk phones were recently decommissioned, and replaced with computer phones. The instructions were online. I suspect I stuffed something up. The “Frequently Asked Questions” did not deal with my issues. I spent some time on a help line, but ironically, because the problem involved my phone, I couldn’t talk to the person, and they had to call me on my mobile. I could go on with more examples, but you get the picture…
The one thing I can say about university systems is that they are almost universally dysfunctional in one way or another. I also seem to have a unique and embarrassing tendency to ruin the system in some way, and require help.
Sometimes, it takes me hours to do something. “You are currently … 7th … in the queue … ” says the little voice on the phone, as I stare glumly at the computer screen.
I’m sure this isn’t an efficient use of my time. My skills, as I always say in performance reviews, are in teaching and research. They’re not in fixing computers, or setting up meeting rooms, or booking flights for conference travel, or sorting through mail.
It seems to me that “self-service” allows employers to push the provision of and responsibility for basic services necessary for employees to do the job onto the employee themselves.
I am also aware of the travails of those people on the other end of the phone line or the email. I was talking to someone who had worked in a university at a period when it transitioned from in-person to online interaction.
“It really changed things,” she said. “Previously, people used to come down to my office, and we’d have a chat about what they wanted, and I’d be able to say, ‘Well, I can’t do it today, but maybe tomorrow, if that’s okay?’”
But then, the university switched to an online request system, where emails didn’t go to a named person but through a request form service, where she became simply the person who looked after the email inbox for firstname.lastname@example.org.
The job changed fundamentally. She began to receive curt and often abrupt requests through the system. There was no face-to-face contact. She couldn’t tell people that she was also dealing with fifteen other requests, so they’d have to wait. There was no indication as to whose request was important or why: of course, everyone said their request was urgent.
She would get frustrated emails from academics demanding to know why she hadn’t replied yet. They seemed to forget there was a real person at the end of the email. She barely spoke to anyone face-to-face any more, and never got to know the people on the other end of the emails. Eventually, she quit.
I suppose companies and universities institute this kind of a system because it’s cheaper. But I also suspect that the people who make decisions about such systems don’t have to use them personally.
They have administrative staff to help them, in ways that people at the coal face do not. I’d really like to have someone in authority trail me around for a week, and every time I come up against some self-service problem, they have to sort it out for me: call the help-line, lodge the ticket, email the form, sort through the pile of mail in the mailroom.
The “self-service” mentality is not good, for universities or for society more generally. It’s good to talk to someone face-to-face.
Replacing humans with computer systems, algorithms, and forms may seem efficient. For me, however, it has greatly added to my administrative burden, and my core job suffers as a result. It’s difficult not to feel alone. I do very much appreciate those patient people on the end of emails or helplines who can assist me. They have very tough jobs too, and have to deal with frustrated people. It’s why I always try to be polite and to be aware that there is another person on the end of the email.
Ultimately, I wonder if the move to self-service is a false economy. Oh, it saves on staff costs, but there are incalculable human costs to taking people out of the equation.
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