Nov 7, 2022 - Technology

How tech can make work harder

Animated illustration of a wobbling stack of computer parts.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech enables people to do their jobs however and wherever they like. But the number of applications needed now to do any one job can make it feel like we're working multiple jobs at the same time.

Why it matters: The freedom that remote work provides can also come at a mental and sometimes emotional cost. Over time and across large workforces, those effects can lead to burnout and a drop in productivity.

By the numbers: Workers are using an average of six to eight apps to perform a single business process, Tori Paulman, senior director analyst at Gartner, told Axios.

  • A salesperson, for example, switches among email, calendar, enterprise chat software such as Slack, a customer relationship management (CRM) platform such as Salesforce, a video conference system, maybe a conference room system too, a note taking application and presentation-maker in order to meet with a client.
  • One study published in the Harvard Business Review suggests workers are switching from app to app, website to website, nearly 1,200 times a day — and paying a so-called "toggling tax" that amounts to a total of 9% of their annual time at work.

Context: The number of ways workers stayed in touch with one another digitally shot up during the pandemic, said Paulman.

  • Friction (and frustration) increased as a result — whether it's learning a completely different set of apps for a new job, clashing with colleagues who have varying levels of tech proficiency, or being forced to use a program that's counter to a personal preference.

What they're saying: "You might not be commuting into the office, but you're commuting from email to CRM and from CRM to [browsing the web] and from the internet to [using your phone]," Paulman said.

  • All that traveling requires additional cognitive energy and effort — to readjust to a new application and to context switch — on top of what's needed to execute the function of any given role.
  • Over time, fatigue can set in, which can then lead to small mistakes and self-doubt — feelings that can hurt morale and individual performance as they compound, Paulman added.

Some repeatable solutions: Employers should enable workers with a lot of "digital dexterity" to help their peers, Paulman said.

  • For example, Gartner's research has shown that peer learning (a colleague showing another colleague a tip or trick) is more effective than an IT department forcing new programs onto workers.
  • Our thought bubble: Nimbler employees can create new digital assembly lines for work across apps to be streamlined.

The big picture: Technology has enabled work to be more transactional, according to Bryan Hancock, McKinsey's global leader of talent work.

  • Managers, then, need to put additional focus on recognizing the humanity of their workers, Courtney McCluney, an organizational behavior expert and former assistant professor at Cornell University, previously told Axios.

What to watch: Worker productivity (how much output a worker can produce per hour) is hard to measure among "knowledge workers," but nationally, productivity has fallen by the sharpest rate on record.

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