There are more than 2 billion people using smartphones today, these marvelous pieces of technology that are so small that they fit into our pockets, but can make us feel naked when we don’t have them with us.
There are also iPads and a whole range of other tablets. We have a plethora of applications for these devices, which constantly feed us with information and connect us with others. They’ve become extensions of ourselves.
Total Connectivity and the Quest for Engagement and Productivity
Organizations identified the potential of this phenomenon and set out to enable employees to work from anywhere, anytime. Systems, platforms, workflows, policies… everything was reviewed and adapted to support this goal. Even bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives were conceptualized and rolled out to allow employees to use their own personal devices.
We now have – literally in our hands – awesome technology we love and don’t want to miss. It gives us flexibility in our work, and enables us to be more productive and satisfied in our jobs. It sounds as if we reached corporate nirvana, with productivity and engagement rising to unprecedented levels. Or so we thought…
The data, however, tell a different story. In 1987, economist Robert Solow observed: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Thirty years later (and 10 years after the iPhone was launched), the spirit of this statement persists. According to Bersin by Deloitte’s (Deloitte Consulting LLP) latest Predictions for 2017 report, productivity gains have slowed since the widespread adoption of smartphones. At the same time, analysis of Glassdoor data shows that overall employee engagement has not improved over the last decade.
How can this be? There are a few possible explanations:
- New technologies may not completely replace an older one. As a consequence, we may see increased complexity due to the additional choices we need to make and manage. Think of people coming to a meeting with a laptop, tablet, and smartphone, but end up taking notes on paper, just to (maybe) digitalize these afterwards.
- Wide adoption does not guarantee the proper use of the technology, failing to materialize its potential. This is often the case when old habits are transferred to a new technology. Think of someone who uses a word document to write a to-do list, instead of using a tool that is synchronized across all devices, allows for re-sorting and constant updates, and is easy to check off.
- Just because something is technically possible, it doesn’t mean it should be done all the time. Yes, we could work anytime and anywhere, but should we? Research on optimal human performance and employee satisfaction has consistently shown the importance of disconnecting to rest and recover, and this is definitely at odds with the “always-on” trend experienced nowadays.
Multilevel Approach to Put Engagement and Productivity Back on Track
Tackling the negative consequences of technology penetration and organizational adoption is a complex endeavor, so measures are most likely to be effective if initiated at the organizational, team, and individual levels. Here are some first ideas to start with:
Organizational Level: Lean Portfolio and Robust Enablement
According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends, 56 percent of surveyed companies are redesigning their HR programs to leverage digital and mobile tools, and 51 percent are in the process of redesigning their organizations for digital business models. As part of this redesign, IT and HR organizations can both have a significant positive impact and support higher levels of productivity, well-being, and employee engagement.
IT departments should focus on keeping a lean technology portfolio, which is relevant for the employee as well as fully compatible with and integrated to other solutions. At the same time, change management activities, including roll-out, communication, and enablement, should be carefully planned and executed to reduce workforce confusion and frustration.
HR departments should define strategies to promote well-being and optimal human performance to enable employees to work at their best. A good place to start is by getting insights from employee surveys around business health culture and engagement. How employees use technology, manage their schedules, or deal with time pressure are learnable skills, so enhancing the training portfolio in these areas will be beneficial.
Team Level: Setting Clear Rules
Teams and leaders should not avoid discussions around internal team rules when it comes to availability and the management of interruptions.
These conversations should not only clarify when general reachability is expected (e.g., in a typical day, or during critical project phases) but also when team member are not expected to respond or be available. Not everybody wants to (nor sustainably can) be “always on,” and neither will this increase productivity and engagement across the organization.
In addition, teams are well advised to define rules for noninterruption to protect each other’s productivity. As we see more and more advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, routine tasks performed by employees will diminish. Employees will increasingly perform complex tasks such as abstraction, conceptualization, strategy, or leadership – all of which require concentration and focus during uninterrupted slots of time.
Individual Level: Defining Individual Boundaries and Self-Management
Employee well-being and productivity is inherently tied to each individual. Consequently, individuals play a significant role in the equation, and their power is often larger than assumed.
Employees should clarify and embrace their relationship to technology. This implies not only deciding on devices, apps and platforms used, but also on the level of intrusiveness one wants to implement.
Multiple communication technologies require a higher level of self-management. Email, text message, chat, or even the good old phone call, can all feel very intrusive. Even if – as suggested above – teams do define interruption rules, the individuals reaching out likely won’t know whether the person they want to communicate with prefers not to be interrupted. So it’s wise to make good use of silent mode, “do not disturb” status, and other similar settings.
Last but not least, go for the single most effective productivity tool: the to-do list. Feeling constantly busy, but no feelings of accomplishment at the end of the day? Chances are, you started the day without a to-do list, and/or you’ve had a day full of interruptions.
So, let’s go and get productive. It will make us feel better.
Alejandro Aichele is the global head of Talent and Organizational Insight at SAP.