Technology vs Productivity: Friends or Foes?

October 11, 2016 Marcus Varner

It’s often the case that our greatest weaknesses are the flip side of our greatest strengths.

Are you extremely detail oriented and a great planner? You probably also have a tendency to sweat the small stuff and worry more than you need to.

Are you an excellent analytical thinker who can think deeply about issues and consider them from every angle? You may also struggle to act quickly and decide resolutely.

Are you a people person who finds it easy to get along with almost anyone? You might also be prone to putting your own opinions and needs on the backburner.

The same is true for technology. It can be both the greatest driver of our productivity and efficiency, as well as our biggest barrier to getting anything done.

A recent study from Careerbuilder listed the following as the biggest productivity killers in the workplace:

  1. Cellphones/texting
  2. The Internet
  3. Gossip
  4. Social media
  5. Email
  6. Co-workers dropping by
  7. Meetings
  8. Smoke breaks/snack breaks
  9. Noisy co-workers
  10. Sitting in a cubicle

Notice that four of the top five answers are all technology related. Here’s how those four tools in particular have changed our lives for the better, plus a quick study of their flip-side weaknesses.

How Email Helps

A vast improvement over the snail mail, fax and interoffice memos of yesteryear, email is the primary means of business communication today. Workers use email to communicate status, schedule meetings, organize tasks, collaborate on projects, subscribe to industry newsletters, and (of course) stay abreast of the latest sales from their preferred shopping sites.

It’s an asynchronous form of communication, meaning that the sender and receiver don’t both have to be logged in for a conversation to occur. Each party can reply to the thread whenever he or she is available, and the conversations can be revisited later—if they can be found.

How Email Hurts

In our 2016 State of Enterprise Work Report, 43% of workers blamed “excessive emails” for getting in the way of their work. It was the number two answer, behind “wasteful meetings.” Too many people view email as a one-tool-fits-all solution, using it for things it was never designed to do—like task-tracking, project management, and certain conversations that should occur face-to-face. Email makes it easier than ever to communicate, and it also enables rampant over-communication.

How the Internet Helps

No fact, no matter how trivial, is out of reach anymore. It’s easy to stay on top of what your competitors are putting out there. Businesses have unprecedented access directly to their online consumers—and insights into their behaviors. The Internet has changed everything about how we access and share information, shop, communicate, consume media, and more.

Just how big is the Internet? Here’s one estimation:

“According to Cisco's Visual Networking Index initiative, the Internet is now in the ‘zettabyte era.’ A zettabyte equals 1 sextillion bytes, or 1,000 exabytes. By the end of 2016, global Internet traffic will reach 1.1 zettabytes per year, according to Cisco, and by 2019, global traffic is expected to hit 2 zettabytes per year. One zettabyte is the equivalent of 36,000 years of high-definition video, which, in turn, is the equivalent of streaming Netflix's entire catalog 3,177 times.”

How the Internet Hurts

Clickbait. Memes. Comments sections. ZergNet. Endless distractions. You visit The New York Times to read the latest business news, and 30 minutes later you find yourself embroiled in the latest Kardashian scandal. Tim Urban of Wait but Why explains the Internet’s affect on the procrastination-prone in this brilliant sketch:

How Smartphones Help

It hasn’t even been a decade since the first iPhone was introduced, and already 56% of the traffic on top sites comes from mobile devices. Our consumers can keep connected to our brands anywhere and everywhere. They can browse and shop for our products while standing in line at the grocery store. The can offer product feedback by email, Facebook, Twitter, and other channels the moment the thought occurs to them. Our employees can check their email and accept meeting requests from soccer games and the dentists’ office. We’re just a click or two away from our fellow employees—and our favorite brands—at all hours of the day and night.

How Smartphones Hurt

Smartphones have contributed to an “always on” culture that is burning people out. Last year’s Work-Life Imbalance Report survey revealed that 57% of workers feel that technology has ruined family dinner, and 40% have said that a bad work-life balance has ruined time with family and friends.


How Instant Messaging Helps

You can get a question answered in the moment, without having to engage in the pleasantries of verbal conversation. “Hi, how are you? How are the kids? Oh, really, that’s great. Anyway, I have a quick question for you…” And you don’t have to wait for someone to check and respond to their email.

How Instant Messaging Hurts

Even beyond the fact that the constant pinging all day long can keep you from diving very deep into your most pressing projects, instant messaging isn’t archived. So if you discuss or decide anything important, you won’t have an easily accessible record of the conversation to refer to in the future.

The Verdict: Technology and Productivity are Friends and Foes

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a seismic shift in the way business is done. We can now exchange written and video communications in real time with anyone on any continent and in any time zone. The sum of all human knowledge is available instantly via handheld computers that fit in our pockets. And social media gives businesses unprecedented access directly to customers and prospects in a way that was unheard just a few years ago.

All of this has made businesses more connected, given us greater visibility into customer needs and behaviors, and provided unprecedented access to data and analytics. And also it means our employees face a minute-by-minute barrage of notifications, alerts, memes, clickbait and other productivity-killing interruptions.

Is personal discipline is our only defense against the onslaught of distractions? 

Personal discipline does help, but it goes much farther when it's powered by the one form of technology that has arisen to swallow up the productivity problems of all the others—cloud-based work management software. In solutions like Workfront, all collaboration and status sharing happens in a centralized online space, where it's collected and archived within the work projects themselves. Email becomes a mere accessory to the tool—it's there to notify you when something important is happening in the solution. And you get the transparency and visibility you need to address productivity problems before they become crises. 

In its efforts to make us more productive, technology has handed us a new set of productivity problems, which happen to be best solved by, you guessed it, technology. Go figure.


About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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