A connected world should be a more productive world. But that does not seem to be the case. Even as employees spend more and more time online, productivity is falling in countries across Europe. To overcome this conundrum, forward-thinking companies are exploring new and different ways of working, ranging from using new and creative online tools to banning email completely after office hours. These types of approach are in their infancy but the results so far provide food for thought suggesting that, in the online world, less can sometimes be more.​

TECHNOLOGY

According to the old English proverb, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Now, in the always-on 21st century we can add another “T” – technology. For the internet – that great enabler of friction-free global communication and commerce – can have a dark side. It never stops, and nor, unless we are very careful, do we. 

A recent report found that the average person in the UK spends up to 36 days a year answering emails. That’s nearly 15 per cent of the standard working life glued to an inbox. Except that for many people the task extends well beyond office hours – another piece of research suggests that up to 80 per cent of British workers are busy online from before breakfast until well into the evening. Checking email first thing in the morning and last thing at night has become as much of a habit as washing and putting the cat out. 

Stubbornly low

Despite all this activity, however, productivity levels in the UK and many European economies remain stubbornly low. One exception is Germany, which recently topped an OECD ranking of global productivity per hour worked. But elsewhere, people young and old seem stuck on a treadmill that only ever goes faster, forced to run harder just to stay where they are. Continuous, low-grade, time-stealing “busyness” is in danger of crowding out real, value-adding work. 

According to Jane Rumble, director of market intelligence for UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, it all points to a fundamental paradox at the heart of the modern connected world – the same technology that enables us to work faster and more fluidly can also make us feel boxed in and unable to escape. Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Reports survey highlights the issue. 

“Half of those surveyed said that connectivity enabled greater flexibility at work, but 20 per cent also said that it made them feel that they were always at work,” says Rumble.

Master or servant?

The smartphone is largely to blame: small, nimble and online in an instant. The Ofcom survey found that 51 per cent of respondents sleep with their phones an arm’s reach away, and 27 per cent admitted to checking them in the small hours if they woke during the night. “It’s very easy to go online to do one thing, then get distracted and find that the hours slip away. The advantages are clear – improved communications and more information – but there is a tension,” says Rumble.​

 

TECHNOLOGY

Tech a
break

The creeping realisation that we might be allowing our tech servant to become the master has led to some fairly drastic responses. In highly productive Germany, Volkswagen has experimented with banning out-of-hours email completely. And in France, President François Hollande is trying to buy favour with working voters by floating the idea of a new legal “right to disconnect” outside office hours.

And, while most doctors acknowledge that smartphone addiction is not a medical condition, there is even a medical-sounding word for being welded to your handset – nomophobia, or the fear of being out of mobile phone contact. But, addicted or not, the truth is that Canute-like attempts to keep work in its place are doomed to failure, because like the aeroplane or automobile, the smartphone/internet double act is vital to the way we live and work now. 

As Hungarian artist-turned-entrepreneur Ádám Somlai-Fischer explains: “I am not keen on this idea of banning digital communication. If you love your job, you want to know what is happening.” 

Somlai-Fischer is co-founder of online presentations business Prezi, a fast-growing tech business with 250 staff working out of offices in Budapest, Silicon Valley and Mexico City. Working across multiple time zones, early starts and late finishes are the norm. 

“We offer flexible working, so you can set your own schedule – if you want to work evenings and weekends at home, that’s fine,” Somlai-Fischer says. 

Everything has its place

Like many other businesses today, Prezi could not exist without modern communications, so rather than attaching blanket blame to technology, it might be more beneficial to analyse individual tools and assess whether they are appropriate to the task in hand.

Email, for example, is the most popular form of digital communication but usage has plateaued especially among the young. Today, many believe that, as a one-size-fits-all medium, its days are numbered.

“No one likes to do email. It takes away from creative time. I know some people who have deleted their entire inboxes – you get to 100,000 unread messages and you just can’t do it any more,” says Somlai-Fischer.

Instead there is a trend towards using new tools, such as the web developers’ favourites Slack (for messaging) and Trello (a kind of slick online to-do list for project managers). Both are simple, cloud based and fast, designed specific­ally to facilitate collaboration between virtual teams whose members may be on different continents but who all have to deliver to the same spec and deadlines. Slack, in particular, is popular among tech-savvy workers because it has group messaging capabilities and works seamlessly across multiple devices. 

Learning to use these new tools does require a certain amount of time and effort but users say the boost to productivity and increased thinking time more than repay the initial investment.​

According to the old English proverb, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Now, in the always-on 21st century we can add another “T” – technology. For the internet – that great enabler of friction-free global communication and commerce – can have a dark side. It never stops, and nor, unless we are very careful, do we. 

A recent report found that the average person in the UK spends up to 36 days a year answering emails. That’s nearly 15 per cent of the standard working life glued to an inbox. Except that for many people the task extends well beyond office hours – another piece of research suggests that up to 80 per cent of British workers are busy online from before breakfast until well into the evening. Checking email first thing in the morning and last thing at night has become as much of a habit as washing and putting the cat out. 

Stubbornly low

Despite all this activity, however, productivity levels in the UK and many European economies remain stubbornly low. One exception is Germany, which recently topped an OECD ranking of global productivity per hour worked. But elsewhere, people young and old seem stuck on a treadmill that only ever goes faster, forced to run harder just to stay where they are. Continuous, low-grade, time-stealing “busyness” is in danger of crowding out real, value-adding work. 

According to Jane Rumble, director of market intelligence for UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, it all points to a fundamental paradox at the heart of the modern connected world – the same technology that enables us to work faster and more fluidly can also make us feel boxed in and unable to escape. Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Reports survey highlights the issue. 

“Half of those surveyed said that connectivity enabled greater flexibility at work, but 20 per cent also said that it made them feel that they were always at work,” says Rumble.

Master or servant?

The smartphone is largely to blame: small, nimble and online in an instant. The Ofcom survey found that 51 per cent of respondents sleep with their phones an arm’s reach away, and 27 per cent admitted to checking them in the small hours if they woke during the night. “It’s very easy to go online to do one thing, then get distracted and find that the hours slip away. The advantages are clear – improved communications and more information – but there is a tension,” says Rumble.​

“Years ago we all had to learn how to write beautiful business letters. Then we had to learn email etiquette like not using capitals and when to bcc. Now we are doing the same with these new tools. The biggest barrier to learning is not the buttons, it’s the mindset. I am turning 40 and I think experience makes you better at learning,” says Somlai-Fischer. 

Digital detox

But clever new tools are not the only way to maximise productivity. For many, at least part of the answer is to take a break from technology altogether. Last year, around 15 million Britons decided to disconnect – mostly for a day or two but some for as long as several weeks. Those who did reported that they felt more productive and focused as a result. And the trend is expected to become increasingly prevalent.

“Now that young people are so much more likely to have a device in their hands the whole time, I think we will go through a bit of a backlash. They will realise that actually talking to people can be quite useful too,” says Nina Bhatia, managing director for commercial and connected homes at Centrica’s British Gas.

The creeping realisation that we might be allowing our tech servant to become the master has led to some fairly drastic responses. In highly productive Germany, Volkswagen has experimented with banning out-of-hours email completely. And in France, President François Hollande is trying to buy favour with working voters by floating the idea of a new legal “right to disconnect” outside office hours.

And, while most doctors acknowledge that smartphone addiction is not a medical condition, there is even a medical-sounding word for being welded to your handset – nomophobia, or the fear of being out of mobile phone contact. But, addicted or not, the truth is that Canute-like attempts to keep work in its place are doomed to failure, because like the aeroplane or automobile, the smartphone/internet double act is vital to the way we live and work now. 

As Hungarian artist-turned-entrepreneur Ádám Somlai-Fischer explains: “I am not keen on this idea of banning digital communication. If you love your job, you want to know what is happening.” 

Somlai-Fischer is co-founder of online presentations business Prezi, a fast-growing tech business with 250 staff working out of offices in Budapest, Silicon Valley and Mexico City. Working across multiple time zones, early starts and late finishes are the norm. 

“We offer flexible working, so you can set your own schedule – if you want to work evenings and weekends at home, that’s fine,” Somlai-Fischer says. 

Everything has its place

Like many other businesses today, Prezi could not exist without modern communications, so rather than attaching blanket blame to technology, it might be more beneficial to analyse individual tools and assess whether they are appropriate to the task in hand.

Email, for example, is the most popular form of digital communication but usage has plateaued especially among the young. Today, many believe that, as a one-size-fits-all medium, its days are numbered.

“No one likes to do email. It takes away from creative time. I know some people who have deleted their entire inboxes – you get to 100,000 unread messages and you just can’t do it any more,” says Somlai-Fischer.

Instead there is a trend towards using new tools, such as the web developers’ favourites Slack (for messaging) and Trello (a kind of slick online to-do list for project managers). Both are simple, cloud based and fast, designed specific­ally to facilitate collaboration between virtual teams whose members may be on different continents but who all have to deliver to the same spec and deadlines. Slack, in particular, is popular among tech-savvy workers because it has group messaging capabilities and works seamlessly across multiple devices. 

Learning to use these new tools does require a certain amount of time and effort but users say the boost to productivity and increased thinking time more than repay the initial investment.​

There are rarely any meetings to go to and there’s not that much email. Instead things are done more fluidly”​

There are rarely any meetings to go to and there’s not that much email. Instead things are done more fluidly”​

Years ago we all had to learn how to write beautiful business letters. Then we had to learn email etiquette like not using capitals and when to bcc. Now we are doing the same with these new tools”​

There is a growing recognition that productivity and long hours do not always make the best bedfellows”​

The increasing ease with which businesses can connect with each other and with colleagues has encouraged an always-on culture. But there is a growing recognition that productivity and long hours do not always make the best bedfellows. 
“Whether you’re talking about a BlackBerry or a smartphone or even a conventional phone with a wire, it’s about maintaining people’s effectiveness at work. And they are not going to be as effective if they are on 24 hours a day. As with anything else, self-discipline is important,” says Bhatia 

Back to articles

Volkswagen has experimented with banning out-of-hours email completely. And in France, President François Hollande is floating the idea of a new legal ‘right to disconnect’ outside office hours”​

Bhatia is responsible for the Hive Connected Home business, which provides smartphone-enabled heating and lighting services. She does not believe that employers should dictate when their employees are online or offline but she does advocate that business leaders have a responsibility to set a good example. 

“The same rules about respecting people’s availability apply in this new connected world as in the old one. So I am not sending emails late at night unless I absolutely have to. If you send an email at the weekend you may not expect a reply but you can’t always explain that, so I have to self-censor a bit too,” she says.​

Time wasters

But technology is not the only time thief in the working day: long and unproductive meetings are also renowned for wasting hours and sapping motivation. 

“Previous companies I have worked for have had an emails and meetings based culture. But Alibaba has neither,” says Amee Chande, alumna of McKinsey, Walmart, supply chain giant Staples and Tesco. Now a managing director at Alibaba, she runs the Chinese auction giant’s European hub in London.

“There are rarely any meetings to go to and there’s not that much email. Instead things are done more fluidly. We have an internal app called Ding which is like social media for work. If I have a question I Ding you, you reply and we’re done. If I need to conference in more people I just add them to my Ding group and finish the conversation. It’s a lot more real time and so I don’t have any email to do when I go home at night,” she explains.

Culture clash

The approach may sound appealing but the no-meetings orthodoxy in particular can take some getting used to. 

“Our European partners tend to ask for regular meetings once a month. The reaction from my Chinese colleagues is, ‘Well, why don’t we wait to set up a meeting when we have something to talk about?’ It’s such a clash of cultures,” Chande explains. 

It may appear haphazard compared to conventional processes, but it is part of the relentlessly streamlined, can-do approach which has helped Alibaba attract 350 million customers and become the world’s largest global e-commerce platform. 

“At first I thought it was rude – if clients ask for a monthly meeting they should get one – but now I think it is so much healthier. Sometimes you need an hour and a half, and you need it tonight, and other times you don’t need it at all,” says Chande. 

The increasing ease with which businesses can connect with each other and with colleagues has encouraged an always-on culture. But there is a growing recognition that productivity and long hours do not always make the best bedfellows. 

“Whether you’re talking about a BlackBerry or a smartphone or even a conventional phone with awire, it’s about maintaining people’s effectiveness at work. And they are not going to be as effective if they are on 24 hours a day. As with anything else, self-discipline is important,” says Bhatia 

Back to articles

There is a growing recognition that productivity and long hours do not always make the best bedfellows”​

“Years ago we all had to learn how to write beautiful business letters. Then we had to learn email etiquette like not using capitals and when to bcc. Now we are doing the same with these new tools. The biggest barrier to learning is not the buttons, it’s the mindset. I am turning 40 and I think experience makes you better at learning,” says Somlai-Fischer. 

Digital detox

But clever new tools are not the only way to maximise productivity. For many, at least part of the answer is to take a break from technology altogether. Last year, around 15 million Britons decided to disconnect – mostly for a day or two but some for as long as several weeks. Those who did reported that they felt more productive and focused as a result. And the trend is expected to become increasingly prevalent.
“Now that young people are so much more likely to have a device in their hands the whole time, I think we will go through a bit of a backlash. They will realise that actually talking to people can be quite useful too,” says Nina Bhatia, managing director for commercial and connected homes at Centrica’s British Gas.​

Years ago we all had to learn how to write beautiful business letters. Then we had to learn email etiquette like not using capitals and when to bcc. Now we are doing the same with these new tools”​

Bhatia is responsible for the Hive Connected Home business, which provides smartphone-enabled heating and lighting services. She does not believe that employers should dictate when their employees are online or offline but she does advocate that business leaders have a responsibility to set a good example. 
“The same rules about respecting people’s availability apply in this new connected world as in the old one. So I am not sending emails late at night unless I absolutely have to. If you send an email at the weekend you may not expect a reply but you can’t always explain that, so I have to self-censor a bit too,” she says.  

Time wasters

But technology is not the only time thief in the working day: long and unproductive meetings are also renowned for wasting hours and sapping motivation. 

“Previous companies I have worked for have had an emails and meetings based culture. But Alibaba has neither,” says Amee Chande, alumna of McKinsey, Walmart, supply chain giant Staples and Tesco. Now a managing director at Alibaba, she runs the Chinese auction giant’s European hub in London.

“There are rarely any meetings to go to and there’s not that much email. Instead things are done more fluidly. We have an internal app called Ding which is like social media for work. If I have a question I Ding you, you reply and we’re done. If I need to conference in more people I just add them to my Ding group and finish the conversation. It’s a lot more real time and so I don’t have any email to do when I go home at night,” she explains.

Culture clash

The approach may sound appealing but the no-meetings orthodoxy in particular can take some getting used to. 

“Our European partners tend to ask for regular meetings once a month. The reaction from my Chinese colleagues is, ‘Well, why don’t we wait to set up a meeting when we have something to talk about?’ It’s such a clash of cultures,” Chande explains. 

It may appear haphazard compared to conventional processes, but it is part of the relentlessly streamlined, can-do approach which has helped Alibaba attract 350 million customers and become the world’s largest global e-commerce platform. 

“At first I thought it was rude – if clients ask for a monthly meeting they should get one – but now I think it is so much healthier. Sometimes you need an hour and a half, and you need it tonight, and other times you don’t need it at all,” says Chande.​

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  November 2016  |  Issue 30