Technology and the Nature of WorkMay 5, 2020
Let’s dispense with the obvious.
For the next few years, fewer people will be working — either because the downturn in business will reduce the number of workers needed or because companies will deploy technology to increase productivity of workers through automation and self-service. I know I will replace all of our analysts with Boston Dynamics robot dogs the minute they are capable of writing a good ROI case study.
If we think of the typical knowledge worker, the concept of work can be divided into three broad areas: production, coordination, and inspiration. For organizations looking at their future work environments, technology can really help with the first two, but the third is a bit tricky.
Production is straightforward and offers the greatest ROI impact. It’s the act of actually delivering output and is one of the easiest to manage as remote work. If it’s a sales person, it’s making sales calls and closing deals. For an analyst, it’s generating research while for a marketing person, it’s creating a marketing campaign.
We have plenty of technology solutions that can help the individual be productive, from simple solutions such as Microsoft Excel to more sophisticated solutions such as Salesforce CRM or self-service kiosks. People are expensive and anything you can do to make them more productive delivers tangible value. We see that all the time in ROI case studies. In fact, looking back on the past two years of published studies, productivity gains made up over two thirds of the benefits realized in a typical technology deployment.
Coordination makes up a percentage of every day and is the act of meeting with others to gain agreement and reduce corporate friction. Addressing this, collaboration solutions are all the rage (again) with products from Slack to Google Hangouts connecting people. Although the ROI from these solutions is not always measurable, the benefits can be dramatic, especially when the technology is used tactically rather than formally.
Coordinating formal meetings using technology supports the remote worker with an electronic version of the same meeting process that always existed. These meetings may be necessary, but the real ROI is in supporting tactical collaboration. Skype (and before that Microsoft Messenger) delivers strong ROI by supporting coordination between employees in the moment, rather than when formally scheduled. Past ROI case studies in this area show that getting an answer now through immediate collaboration increases both the effectiveness and velocity of work.
Inspiration is the one area we can’t fix easily — and that’s a problem. Right now many companies are building the products they’ve already defined or writing the research they’ve already planned. New ideas come to us as individuals, but are never implemented without being tested and challenged by others. For every good idea there are hundreds of bad ones that die after a quick sanity check. The informal test of an idea between close employees over the cube wall, in the hallway, or over lunch are the seeds that drive an innovative business.
It will take time for phone calls and quick video chats to take the place of informal connections. They exist now, but usually at a higher level after an idea has been somewhat vetted, and almost always between workers with an existing connection. And that’s the key. If your company relies on inspiration, getting employees together to build bonds will be critical to long term success. You may be fine in the short term, but your river of new ideas will turn into a stream if you don’t take an active role in employee matchmaking. Still, I fear we still don’t have the best technology solution yet. If you think of the classic example of the development of the 3M sticky note, it’s hard to imagine that spark generating through remote work.
For organizations, focusing on individual productivity, tactical collaboration, and employee matchmaking are the three activities that are likely to pay off with real ROI now and into the future.