Almost four years ago I took the leap to full-time self employment. This meant no more monthly pay-checks and no guarantee of a stable income from one month to the next. A scary prospect for someone used to a regular income.
I quickly realised that success in business would depend on my ability to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of my day. Success depended upon maximising the billable hours my team completed each and every day and to ensure that other non-billable activities (such as sales and marketing) were as effective as they could be.
As a result of this realisation, in common with many small business owners I have become obsessed with learning – and practising – how to be more productive in my work.
From personal experience, and from working with my clients I have also come to realise that the surest path to increasing productivity is to allow workers to do work that interests and engages them so they can so their best work. This key insight underpins my upcoming book ‘Automating the Workplace’ (due out later this year).
It follows therefore that motivation and hence productivity* should increase if technology can be applied to lift the burden of tedious work from the backs of employees. This is especially so if enlightened employers can use appropriate technology to re-deploy workers to more meaningful work rather than terminating them. (In their recently released book ‘Service Automation – Robots and The Future Of Work’ Leslie Willcocks and Mary Lacity make the point that when process automation was introduced to companies in their studies most if not all employees were re-deployed rather than fired).
* The link between motivation and productivity is the topic of a later article.
Unfortunately the impact of technology in the workplace is not always so positive.
Bearing in mind that productivity is often rather clinically defined as output of work achieved by a human resource for a a unit of input, often times technology can result in a decline in output for every unit of input.
The classic, and very challenging aspect of technology in the modern workplace is the case of Social Media usage.
I am no Luddite – having been a strong proponent of technology tools for sharing and collaboration much of my professional life (my Masters Thesis – “Architecture for Conferencing and Collaboration” (1997) outlined aspects of the future we now see in the modern workplace).
It is though becoming increasingly clear that the impacts of indiscriminate Social Media usage and uncontrolled time wasting on the internet are now very significant.
According to a recent report cited in the Huffington Post, the cost of employee non work related Social Media usage to the US economy alone has been estimated by at least one researcher to be as high as $650 billion.
A lot of time is spent on Social Media. In fact it is estimated that 1 in 5 millenials (broadly those between the ages of 18 and 34) spend in excess of 6 hours on social media daily.
With the increasing adoption of smartphones this distraction is not likely to decline any time soon. According to a recent report cited in Time magazine the average US smartphone user checks their phones 46 times a day.
Whether or not you can put an exact figure on costs and usage, anecdotally most of us can understand that excessive use of Social Media in the workplace is likely have a negative impact on productivity.
As Cal Newport notes in his book ‘Deep Work’ and further clarifies in his recent TEDx talk there are many drawbacks to the usage of Social Media on employee productivity and well being.
The fragmentation of concentration and the constant FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) create a low level anxiety and loss of focus that prevents workers from achieving the high level of focus required to excel at their work. This is was Cal Newport refers to as ‘Deep Work’.
Social Media is one example of technology negatively impacting productivity, another is the use of e-mail in the workplace.
According to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute highly skilled knowledge workers spend on average 28% of their working week reading and responding to emails.
Once a significant email history exists in an employee’s inbox a significant part of their time is spent in searching for and retrieving information. Email as it is currently utilised within an organisation can be a significant time sink.
Another aspect of email – and Social Media to a larger extent – is that the novelty effect of new emails (or posts) leads to workers checking their email many, many times per day. In fact in one recent report 33% of workers check e-mail hourly or more frequently throughout the day.
For balance it is important to note that both social media and email can also have a very positive impact on productivity if used effectively.
Take for example the case of lead generation and prospecting in a small business. Dial back ten years and the standard way for generating new leads might involve newspaper advertising and cold calling. Cold calling in particular is – for many – a psychologically challenging (dealing with all that rejection) and labour intensive process.
With Social Media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram you name it – the ability to directly connect with your potential target audience and generate qualified leads for your product or service offers huge advantages to the sales & marketing capabilities of an organisation. The ROI of social media in this case is usually excellent – if done effectively.
Email can also be an invaluable tool for communication – if used appropriately. Workers with good email routines (not checking emails 50 times a day) can send effective email messages to communicate with other team members, customers and suppliers in near real time – replacing fax and postal mail in many cases. There is no question that until recently email has been a ‘killer app’ for business. In recent years email is being increasingly superseded by chat (Microsoft Lync) and cloud based team collaboration applications such as Slack and Podio.
The move to cloud based team collaboration tools, the increasing automation of back-office operations using process automation and the increasing trend toward integration and self service portals are all positive indicators toward a better and more productive future in the workplace. The last decade has seen a veritable explosion of technology choices – some beneficial and others not so beneficial to the overall goal of enhancing the capabilities of workers to do their best work and businesses to maximise profitability per employee.
Peter Burgess is the founder of Olivitek Software. He writes on the intersection between technology and the workplace. Upcoming blog topics will include Productivity, Motivation, Business Process Automation, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and how-to articles with tips on how to automate your SME business. His upcoming book ‘Automating the Workplace’ will be available in the second half of 2017.