Article Art by Paul Snyder

Tempted to Replace Volunteers with Technology?

Posted by Jason Young on August 01, 2012.

Author: Jason Young

I was about to make a tragic mistake. I was leading the guest experience for my mega-church. We needed to re-tool how we were interacting with anyone that called into the main phone number every day of the week. I fought for the implementation of an automated system to replace our current receptionist so we could have her do other tasks.

Fortunately, my hard fought battle for the automated system was declined. At first, I felt defeated. My plan was detailed and well-thought out. However, I was missing the one element every person craves, especially when you are calling a church or company for helpful information: human interaction. As soon as you think about replacing people with technology, be careful. You are about to take away the one element we all want and desperately need.

In 2010, USA Today dubbed it the year we stopped talking with one another. The truth is, we changed our style of talking with one another with the help of technology. The conversation channel changed. I believe we’re creating a generation of young leaders facing a technology detachment paradigm. I hear many church leaders argue we are still interacting through technology, but research and observations would prove otherwise. We are facing an eerie lack of contact with humanity which hurts us emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. In fact, we are becoming typists of our human experience.

Google “technology replacing human interaction.” You get over 16 million results. This subject has seen increased discussion volume for the past several years. In fact, several months ago I watched a news report about the invention of a robot that would be your friend. Yes, this robot would interact with you like a human.

Ten years ago we started to see self-service checkouts become popular. But recently I’ve heard many large stores remove these registers. What decision-makers thought would be best for their brand and stores resulted in hurting the shopping experience for many – including me. When my wife goes with me to Wal-Mart, which she prefers not to do, I would always head in the direction of the self-service registers. She always says something will go wrong. Guess what? She’s right 100% of the time. So now I always find a person to check me out even if that means waiting in line.

Why is technology advocated over human interaction?

  • Provides a choice
  • Reduces staff
  • Gives the impression of speed

Why is human interaction advocated over technology?

  • Provides staff another touch point with people
  • Reduced confusion
  • Infuses positive emotional meaning into a memorable experience

There can be great power when technology is coupled with human interaction. For example, look at how Apple stores check you out using mobile devices as registers. The technology used in the hand of a well-trained employee makes all the difference in the shopping experience.

Great customer service is when we protect the relationship and use tools like technology as a support to deliver a memorable experience.

God created humanity to need one another. I need you. You need me.

God created humanity to need one another. I need you. You need me. I fight for one-on-one interaction and so should you. Technology could potentially destroy that if we are not protectors of the obvious.

I think we can strike a happy medium embracing helpful tools while refusing to abandon in-person interactions.

What should be considered when exploring the use of technology?

  • Technology is not as powerful as a present person
  • Technology should be used as a tool
  • Technology can unpredictably breakdown

Here are four elements to keep in mind when making a decision about what, when, and how technology is implemented:

  • Your church culture
  • Your attendee demographic
  • You as the leader
  • Your volunteers

I like what Melissa Nilles, Arts and Entertainment Editor at The Bottom Line, wrote:

Let’s make the relationships that count last, and not rely on technology to do the job for us.

While technology has allowed us some means of social connection that would have never been possible before, and has allowed us to maintain long-distance friendships that would have otherwise probably fallen by the wayside, the fact remains that it is causing us to spread ourselves too thin, as well as slowly ruining the quality of social interaction that we all need as human beings. So what are we doing with 3000 friends on the Internet? Why are we texting all the time? Seems like a big waste of time to me. Let’s spend more time together with our friends. Let’s make the relationships that count last, and not rely on technology to do the job for us.

I go to a wonderful church outside of Atlanta, GA. I like how our preschool check-in process works. They use technology as a support tool for the human interaction. When we check our little boy in, we use technology but not without the presence of a trained volunteer that welcomes our family and offers help – even though we have been attending the church for almost three years. The leaders have trained the volunteers to be aware of interacting with people because that is what can make or break any experience.

Yes, interaction can make or break any experience. Don’t break your experience by making it all about technology.

About the Author

Jason Young | T w
Jason loves growing leaders, building volunteer teams, designing guest experiences and being strategic about how they intersect. He is the Director of Guest Services for North Point Ministries that includes six Atlanta-area churches. The staff and 3,000 volunteers on Guest Services serve over 35k guests each Sunday.

2 Comments

  1. Good points, but I don’t see the New Testament church as being as volunteer dependent as our current churches are. I’m a video guy, so I know it takes a team of people to do videos, but what I’ve noticed is that there’s a rat-race of sorts where committed volunteers (I volunteer between 10 and 20 hours a week) are asked to help out more and more. Some churches see this as an indication that those volunteers are important enough to hire; others don’t.

    If you can free up your key volunteers, why not do it? I’m not thinking of an answering service here, but better computers, for example. If I can spend $1000 more and free up 2 hours of time a week (104 hours a year) for a volunteer video editor, is it worth the gift of less than $10/hour to that volunteer so that he can sleep or spend it with his wife, etc.? I think it is.

    When buying tech, think of the volunteer hours you’re saving that can help their lives and families, not just “a person can do it better, and they’re free.”

    I’m not disagreeing, but think we should balance the two ideas. Remember that volunteers only have 168 hours in a week. Almost 1/4 of those are work. About 1/3 are sleep. Staff serve the church in the 1/4 that is work and aren’t taking their time off to do it like volunteers are.

    Treat volunteers a precious, not as slaves to be exploited. I know that’s not what most churches do, but sometimes it feels like that’s the effect. Go out of your way to treat your volunteers well and treat their time with respect.

  2. Paul,

    First, thank you for reading.

    Second, thank you for sharing your valuable thoughts.

    I see you how using technology can save volunteer hours. Since I now serve as volunteer, I am more sensitive to the use of hours. However, I also see how this initial beneficial move could hurt the overall experience. I definitely agree that certain types of technology can be valuable and enhance the attendee’s overall experience. The danger is when we remove integral human touches to the flow of an experience. In fact, I was with the former VP of Innovation at McDonalds and we were talking about how they have identified seven zones/touch points needed for every person every visit. These are not touch points with technology.

    In the area in which you serve could be slightly different. I am not sure to be honest. Leaders must remain sensitive to the needs of both the volunteer and the expected deliverables.

    I agree with you on treating volunteers very well. Yes, respecting their time. Personally, I think too many pastors try to do excessive amounts of stuff when scaling back for an increased focus is what is needed. This would help the volunteer distribution needs.


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