Editorial – Something Old, Something New

In the race to dash headlong into the spectacular future of the digital age, there are those who say that technology is destroying traditional relationships and the stability of society.

In some ways, they’re right. People will spend countless hours on social networking sites or chat rooms, posting messages to hundreds of ?friends? they’ll never meet (and who may not even be who they say they are). At the same time, many of us will pass by the same neighbours every day and never even say hello.

Even many traditional family interactions have fallen by the wayside thanks to technology. Parents are often glued to their wide-screen TVs and satellite channels, while the kids are isolated upstairs in their rooms, surfing the net and having IM conversations in shorthand.

With the focus on everything new, fast, and different, even workers are changing jobs at a faster rate than previous generations did–as often as every two years, according to a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Which makes it especially interesting that one of the unforeseen results of this technological revolution is–well, just the opposite. Even as it gets harder and harder to keep up with the flurry of new gadgets, some employers are using them to slow things down, particularly when it comes to retaining employees over the long term.

When Ivan Bowman, an employee at a software company in Ontario, decided to move to Nova Scotia, his employer didn’t want to lose him. There were the standard solutions of phone calls and emails, but they didn’t allow the same level of spontaneous interaction in the office environment. So the company came up with a unique solution: they built a robot version of Ivan.

The human-sized contraption looks like a ?coat rack on wheels,? with a screen that allows workers to see Ivan at his desk three provinces away. The real Ivan can make the computer wander the halls, stop at a colleague’s office, sit in on meetings, and hang out at the water cooler. At night, someone plugs the computer Ivan in at his cubicle for recharging and he’s ready to go again the next day.

It’s not quite as high-tech, but other companies are also using the rapid developments in technology to maintain the more old-fashioned, long-term relationships that used to be the norm.

In the call-centre business, especially, turnover rates are high, and it can be difficult for employers to retain good workers. In some case, annual employee turnover rates are 25 to 35 per cent, meaning the average employee is there for less than a year (1). New technology, including Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), is being used to change that, allowing employees who move or have health problems to continue with the stability of the same job.

Like any new technology, the tools of our new electronic world will change us–and the society we live in–in profound ways. But It’s worth remembering that the more things change, the more they stay the same–even if they are wrapped up in a shiny new digital package.

(1) CBC News, 2007. ?VoIP at work.? Retrieved September 24, 2007, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/tech/internet/voip.html