Ah technology. Throughout the ages, advancements in technology have made us more productive, reducing the amount of labour required to complete a task. Thing is, not every piece of workplace technology has actually achieved that aim.
In fact, in today’s technologically-driven workplace, some kinds of workers are less productive than they’ve ever been.
According to research done by Bain & Company, a typical supervisor or mid-level manager was estimated to have less than seven hours a week of uninterrupted work time in a 47 hour work week.
By and large, the rest of the time is spent dealing with technology. This technology, remember is meant to make people’s jobs easier.
“Technology can have enormous benefits in the workplace,” said Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain & Company, in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “But it’s fair to ask whether we have reached the point of diminishing returns in some areas.”
When it comes to time-stealing tech, these are some of the worst offenders.
Email & IM
Look, there’s no denying that email and instant messaging have dramatically changed the way we communicate. Not having to wait hours, or even days, for a project to be delivered upon completion was a game changer.
But because they’ve made communicating so much easier, people use them a whole lot more. You only have to think about the frivolous email chains that spread through the average office to know that.
It’s only once you look at the numbers though that you see just how much of a productivity-suck they can be.
According to a 2015 survey by Adobe Systems, the average US worker spends around 30 hours a week checking email.
Bain & Company’s research meanwhile suggests that the average executive receives more than 30 000 external communications a year. To put that in context, the same executive would only have received 1 000 external communications in 1970.
If your career stretches back far enough, you might remember how much more effort it took to set up a meeting in the days before digital calendars. If your company was large enough, even something as simple as booking a boardroom took time and effort.
Trouble is, just as was the case with email and instant messaging, making it easier to set up meetings only resulted in more meetings.
According to 2014 data, senior executives spend more than two days a week in meetings, while 15% of the average organisation’s time is spent in meetings. That second number, by the way, has increased without fail since 2008.
The point is, before the invention of the digital calendar, you would’ve thought a lot more carefully about whether a meeting was necessary before going to the effort of organising it.
So how about we go back to that kind of thinking before trying out meetings where everyone planks or any other of the dozens of meeting hacks out there?
As much as today’s smartphones are predominantly consumer devices, it’s important to remember that their earliest incarnations were aimed firmly at people in the business world. The original BlackBerry smartphones, for instance, rose out of two-way pagers that had integrated email ability.
In 2003, the first “real” BlackBerry smartphone was released, supporting push email, mobile telephone, text messaging, internet faxing, web browsing and other wireless information services.
It wasn’t long before consumers started realising that they wanted those benefits too.
Trouble is, smartphones have existed in an uneasy limbo between work and play ever since. And that’s been to the detriment of our productivity.
When you’re at work, your phone (most likely) sits on your desk, begging you to pay attention to it. That’s not hyperbole either. Smartphones are designed to grab your attention. Just think about how much time you’ve lost to the Facebook-Twitter-Snapchat-Instagram loop this week.
But because we can access our work email, instant messaging groups, and project management tools from our phones, we can’t really switch off from work either.
While the idea of being able to do work tasks on the fly seems appealing, it means that work increasingly creeps into your personal time. Think about it: how is answering work emails at 4AM, at the expense of sleep, any better than scrolling through your Instagram feed at work?
A mindful solution
The technologies we’ve listed are, of course, just a small sample of those that can affect our productivity. It is also important to remember that they do have benefits and are unlikely to disappear any time soon.
So where do we turn for a solution?
Well, one possibility is take a more mindful approach to these technologies.
When you find yourself about to send an email, stop and think about whether you’re adding any value by sending it. Ditto for instant messages and meeting requests. And no matter how persistent your smartphone notification light is, we guarantee that future you will thank present you for ignoring it and focusing on the task at hand.
It’s not easy, but it’s possible.