Are so called productivity tools failing to increase productivity?

Hannah Wright
Published on 7th June 2017
3 min read

Productivity in the US remains weak. That’s according to the latest US labor productivity statistics. American workers are putting in more work for a lower output.

The worker productivity rate is gauged by the output of goods and services produced for each hour worked. Robert Gordon of Northwestern University claims it is so slow because most companies are still operating the same business methods and procedures that have been in place for at least ten years, despite technology changing. In the 80s and 90s there was a phenomenal boost in workplace productivity. The introduction of computers, word processing software, excel spreadsheets, and then the internet, email, search engines and ecommerce created a rapid increase in productivity that has since slowed down.

The truth of the matter is that today most workers spend their days in a state of constant distraction and task switching. This results in perpetual stress, and employees being busy, but not productive. More than a quarter of the time someone switches tasks, it’s two hours or more before they actually resume what they were doing.

All this distraction affects the quality of the work. Employees who manage their attention poorly are constantly in reactive mode, and engagement levels are at an all-time low. People have no time to reflect and apply their knowledge to organizations’ business goals.

Now, new tools on the market are doing their best to try to help workers.

The range of productivity tools available

Productivity tools are becoming more and more integral to companies as the pace of business changes, and competition heightens. Employees have to contend with providing immediate responses and high quality service to customers – coupled with the strain of working with teams across different locations and often across the world in different time zones.

These tools include a whole range of apps, from those that assist with communication, to those which enable document sharing amongst teams.  Slack allows instant group chats between remote teams that can be integrated easily with other tools such as MeisterTask or Droptask.

There are other tools like Dropbox where large documents can be co-authored; time management tools like Toggl which measures time spent on tasks; or  Streak, an app for Gmail and Google Apps that creates pipelines inside your inbox.

There are also other packages such as Office 365 which provide an integrated solution so everyone can collaborate more effectively with team chat, online meetings, co-authoring and sharing files securely – as well as group email and social network for work.

Using productivity tools: best practice

Such tools can help employees prioritize, streamline, and stay focused on their work. Yet, tools alone won’t solve the productivity problem. There are day-to-day work practices that can be used alongside these to help, such as:

  • Clarity around role priorities rather than specific task priorities. For example, how does the task in hand fit into their overall role in the company? If it doesn’t, then it’s not important
  • Improving management skills rather than time management skills; shifting the focus on to whether something warrants attention in the first place and if so, then it warrants time spent on it
  • Ensuring you’re using a comprehensive workflow management system. The basis of a useful workflow management methodology is the ability to make tasks and responsibilities easy to organize, track, and act upon. However, employees first need to understand what the desired outcome of a task is and if it fits into the overall strategy to understand how it should be prioritized
  • Limiting the actual number of productivity tools used – or else the time gained using them is lost on using the tools, rather than setting work completed

Beyond the tools

However, ultimately these tools and approaches are useless if not implemented properly, and don’t address the fundamental reasons behind lower productivity levels.

Their purpose is to save time and alleviate stress, but if more time is spent fiddling with them, if they are not integrated across all devices, if workers don’t find them user friendly, and more importantly if employees don’t fundamentally understand which jobs are important and which aren’t, then the tools on their own are not going to help.

Before any productivity tool can be effective, leaders need to address the wider issues. The workplace as we know it is changing. Technology, data, and the way we work have collided to reshape human resources. Just as Personnel evolved to become HR in the 1980s, so HR is now changing to become a people function. HR teams need to complete tasks quicker, more efficiently and more accessibility, so they can focus on their people and employee experiences to boost productivity. Companies which do this are People Companies.

Progressive businesses have grasped this reality and realize that the way people work has changed and industrial age HR best practices are out of date. Instead of focusing on tools and working practices, they focus on people. They become People Companies.

Find out more about what being a People Company means. Read our research report.

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Automation HR Systems Technology