These days, you can’t look at technology news stories without being bombarded with information about how new technological advances are improving communication by making messaging and meetings instant and accessible from anywhere. However, there is another side of the technology argument; that modern advancements have caused productivity to stagnate and could threaten jobs if the trend continues. So which is it: are computers increasing productivity or a threat to our jobs? Perhaps it’s neither.
Historically speaking, computers have undisputedly made businesses more efficient and productive. The internet providing instant communication, mobile devices allowing us to work on the move, artificial intelligence to analyse data, computers that can store all our files and autocorrect our English; the list goes on. In the 1990s and 2000s, productivity sky-rocketed but, recently, the level of productivity in business has started to decelerate. For instance, nonfarm businesses in the US grew in productivity between 2000 and 2007 by 2.6%, while between 2007 and 2017 growth was just 1.2%, the lowest since the 1970s.
So what has caused this drop in productivity? Computers and automation are designed to decrease human dependency, thus making us more productive. In his 1930s essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, JM Keynes predicted that thanks to automation and technology, by 2030 we should be operating on a 15-hour work week. However, the number of work hours per week has only increased in recent years and continues to do so. So, if work hours are longer and productivity is declining, what is going on with technology?
It’s difficult to criticise modern technology without sounding like a Luddite and it’s difficult to be pro-technology without sounding like you’ve been assimilated by the Borg, but both sides have a point. While the benefits of technology are fairly evident over the last 50 years, the problems it has caused have flown somewhat under the radar. But since productivity has plateaued, it’s become more important to bring those problems to the light.
Many sceptics worry that technology is a threat to our jobs and this fear is warranted, albeit not in the way many of them fear. Technology isn’t going to replace humans, but they are changing the way in which we operate, and this change is having a detrimental effect on our efficiency. We mentioned earlier that the average UK working week has gotten longer over time, and this can be linked directly to increased interactions. Thanks to email, instant messenger, mobile phones, cloud databases, etc., a business executive will receive roughly 30 times the number of messages than they would have 50 years ago, estimated at around 30,000 messages per year. That doesn’t take into consideration the increased number of meetings, which are now significantly easier and cheaper to organise and can be done remotely when required. Executives can spend over two days of every week in meetings, and it’s estimated that at least 15% of an organisation’s time is dedicated to meetings.
Having instant communication with clients and stakeholders is great from a certain perspective, but the opportunity cost of having to view and reply to all of these messages and attend so many meetings is that significantly less time can be spent on productivity. For instance, if a typical account manager works 47 hours a week, around 21 hours are dedicated to meetings and another 11 hours to address communications. That leaves just 15 hours in the week to get work done.
The necessity to communicate ideas before they are implemented is also having an impact on productivity. Now that work and ideas can be shared so easily, it’s expected that employees consult with colleagues in order to do their job. Around 60% of employees need to engage with 10 colleagues each day. You could argue that any more than two people to approve or confirm work is something of a roadblock to productivity.
By building an expectation for you to remain in constant communication with many different stakeholders, your efficiency in your job will suffer. This is the real threat to your job: technology will not replace you but lower productivity will reflect poorly on you as an employee. But you still have the power to change this negative trend. After all, tech is a tool to be utilised, not something to fall prey to. Take control and define your own rules. You should encourage your business to study its own behaviours and the impact of its decisions. In many cases, new technology is implemented to address poor procedures, but this might not make your business as productive as if those procedures had been addressed directly, rather than circumnavigated.
Consider the new technology at your organisation. Is it designed to make you more efficient, or is it simply a way to make collaboration easier? If the key benefit of new software is that it will save your business money, then it’s worth taking the time to consider the business-wide, long-term impact of that technology.
To clarify, our message here is not that technology is bad and is impacting businesses negatively. But the data shows that productivity is hitting a wall and the ease of interacting and attending meetings seems to be the catalyst for this. If you are an employee, you could be justifiably concerned that the reduced efficiency will lead back to you. But disciplined and organised time management can put your productivity back on track. Just remember that the technology doesn’t make the rules – you do.