With workplaces awash with technology, is it a boon to productivity, or a hindrance?

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Given the technology at our disposal, you would think that UK businesses would be among the most efficient in the world. Indeed, while recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the productivity of British workers has increased at the fastest rate in more than six years, one question to ask is whether this increase is enough. A second - perhaps more pertinent question – is whether the productivity boost often promised by technology is being realised and, if not, why not? 

Identifying the cause of the productivity conundrum 

Having trained thousands of people in managing their competing priorities and delivering their critical results easier through smarter use of technology, my view is that there are three main challenges.     The first, is the increasing expectations of customers. All of society plays a part in this. Almost everyone wants better items and services for a lower price. This places massive pressure on businesses to perform, which, in turn places increasing commercial pressures on their people, who don’t always respond in the most productive way. The rise in work-related stress and mental ill-health at work is testament to this.   

Second, the volume and velocity of peoples’ workloads and the communications involved in delivering that work are a hindrance. Almost everyone I train who has a half decent job has a job and a half to do every day. This makes it difficult to defend and deliver their daily priorities. It is, of course, possible for people to thrive in this environment but it does require increasing investments in their own focus, energy, discipline and resilience.   

Third, with the ever present pressure on delivering results for the immediate opportunity or threat in front of us, people – and I include business leaders here – are overly focused on very short-term horizons. This inevitably means that the more strategic work gets relegated within the demands of the day. Furthermore, the time, effort and energy involved in thinking about, planning and delivering strategic results is sometimes seen as a luxury as opposed to essential future-proofing of the business that it is. There is also a tendency to confuse ‘Productivity’ with ‘Activity’ in busy businesses. With that a backdrop, it is still relevant to ask what role can technology play to help improve the situation. 

Looking for answers in the wrong places 

I believe that technology is often misplaced when people look for answers to their productivity challenges. For sure, it has a place in the overall business productivity platform. This productivity platform has 4 elements: Purpose (served by) > Priorities (served by) > Process (served by) > Technology. When people – and by extension, businesses - are faced with a productivity issue, one of the first things they look at for a solution is ‘Technology’. In my opinion that’s the wrong way round! That said, I think technology will play an increasing role in helping people work more productively in five ways:   

1. It will improve Information management: Today, we have access to ever growing volumes of data and technology is getting better at turning that data into information. As access to this information becomes more of a utility, it will be used by people beyond the small number of subject matter experts across the business.   

2. Improving Collaboration: Making it easier for individuals to work better individually, within their teams and across teams – even into their company’s supplier and customer base. By way of example, Microsoft’s move into developing their Office 365 ecosystem of Apps is a good example of a software sales business changing its business model to address the collaboration challenge.   

3. Technology can automate work processes: It was not that long ago that workload automation was the domain of ‘Change Management’ and IT experts. Today, office workers and business owners can automate and improve their own workflows without touching any Code. Microsoft Flow within Office 365 is an example of easy process creation driven by consumers not specialists. This will probably develop further.   

4. Improving continuous learning and development within the business: Technology driven ‘Blended Learning’ will continue to replace traditional ‘classroom’ training.  

5. Reducing reliance on the keyboard: The trajectory towards mobile working on tablets and smartphones means that technologies like Nuance Communications’ Dragon family of speech recognition software, combined with handwriting technologies with improved OCR capabilities, will increasingly replace keyboard inputs. 

Talking your way to improved productivity 

On that last point, improvements made in voice activated and voice driven technologies and the ever widening adoption of those technologies on home and phone devices, suggests to me that businesses need to look again at supporting speech recognition software within their business applications. Typically, we speak up to three times faster than we type, so creating documents or responding to emails is – for many - far faster when dictated rather than typed.   

The move to tablets meanwhile - and the growing adoption of screenwriting - suggests to me that employees would like to see improvements in the way their screenwriting notes can be recognised and shared across all their productivity tools. As these technologies improve further, I suspect that within the next few years we will all be wondering why on earth we were using keyboards when so few of us were able to use them effectively!   

On the subject of ‘Collaboration’ in the workplace, much has been written about it yet most businesses are still majoring on email (mainly Microsoft Outlook and Gmail) as their internal communication and collaboration tool. Evidence at the moment suggests that the implementation of more collaborative business Apps within the business is driven by disparate teams, rather than from the top. Internal email and private To-Do lists in a multitude of formats clearly does not make for the best team-working and collaboration experience. Microsoft Office 365 users have a number of options available to them, while IBM’s Collaboration suite and Google’s G Suite provide solutions, too. Technology aside, it is time for IT Leaders to unshackle their businesses from the productivity pirate that is internal email!   

Interestingly, we regularly ask our client’s employees to name their top ‘Productivity Pirates’. Their Number one Productivity Pirate is ‘Internal Email’, followed by ‘Internal Meetings’. These top two Pirates have not changed in almost 20 years of us doing these surveys. Even ‘Too Much To Do’ hasn’t leapfrogged them yet!   

There is no doubt that technology has a role to play when it comes to driving productivity, but changing businesses’ and employees’ mindset is every bit as important as deploying the next productivity App or finding the next hyped Hack for what they are already invested in.    

Richard Maybury, Managing Consultant at Attitude Solutions 

Image Credit: Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock