The Downside of Digital Transformation

Digital tools like email, calendars, messaging and ticket management systems have long promised great productivity gains. They automate tedious workflows and drive collaboration, by instantly connecting employees and information across an organization. It's easy to understand why so much time and energy is invested in digital transformation.

In practice, however, many organizations are not experiencing the productivity gains they expected. In fact, it is well known that overall workforce productivity growth has slowed over the past 30 years, just as the digital revolution has gained steam (see The IT Productivity Paradox).

Analysis showing collaborative overload

Data on quarterly growth of the hourly productivity rate in the United States.

At the same time employees are working more hours than ever before. Stagnating productivity may well be creating pressure for employees to work more hours. The result is more overtime and working on weekends to deliver the same results. Clearly a recipe for burnout and low engagement.

So what's happening?

The answer is complicated but a key factor is that the introduction of a myriad of new digital tools has come with new challenges. Just as they promote more efficient ways of working, they may also introduce many new ways to use time inefficiently.

Popular Messaging tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams are a good example of this. They provide users with rich new mechanisms for interacting with many people at once and in real-time. While at the same time, they allow a small number of interactions to consume thousands of hours of time. Broadcast a 10 line conversation into a chat group with 100 people in it and you can instantly consume over 10 hours worth of collective time!

Issues like these work against and, in many cases, can completely negate the productivity gains from going digital.

One great advantage of digital tools is that data on work habits within them is readily available.

One great advantage of digital tools is that data on work habits within them is readily available. By anonymously analyzing this data we are able to better understand where time is being invested. We've analyzed data on digital work habits for a number of organizations and these are some of the typical issues we've detected:

Interruptions. Most forms of knowledge work require long uninterrupted periods of focus. Digital tools make it easier than ever to interrupt colleagues. By analyzing interruptions from email, chat and meetings we can get a sense of how many uninterrupted blocks of time teams have to perform focused work in.

Analysis showing collaborative overload

Analysis on interruptions in employee workday. Some roles perform best with 2 hours or longer periods of focused time.

Multi-tasking. Access to a number of additional tools and sources of information increase the temptation to juggle multiple tasks at once. By analyzing the total number of digital resources employees work on in a given period of time, one can get a sense of the degree to which teams multi-task.

Collaborative Overload. The amount of time spent on collaborative work is ballooning. It's not uncommon to see some teams spending upwards of 50% of their time coordinating in meetings, chat & email. More collaboration is great but too much may leave little time for other tasks.

Analysis showing collaborative overload

Analysis showing key roles and departments spending a significant portion of their time on collaboration

Process Overhead. Digital tools make it much easier to create and enforce onerous processes. Now with a click of a button you can force a ten thousand employee workforce to jump through hoops. Complex process slows people down by adding to the overall cost of getting things done.

What can be done?

To get the most out of the incredible power that digital tools offer, it's important to understand the negative patterns and work habits they may introduce. Organizations can provide training and implement careful policy changes to mitigate these effects. We are working with organizations to analyze how teams use these tools, with the goal of helping them get the productivity boosts they were promised.

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