circular stairwell
With the right approach, you can escape the productivity paradox PHOTO: Alex Pearson

In 1987 economist Robert Solow summed up the dichotomy between slowing productivity growth in the U.S. economy in the face of a hundredfold increase in computing capacity by saying, "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics."

Over the years, study after study has tried to figure out the relationship between IT investments and productivity. 

The short story is that they have showed mixed results. Sometimes IT investments appear to have a positive impact on productivity, other times not. 

Stop Blaming the Technology

A 2011 study in Australian Science looked at previous research in this field and came to the conclusion that information technology does not have a direct impact in productivity. But it can help to improve it. 

The study also put forward the hypothesis that the productivity paradox exists because companies implement information technology poorly. More specifically, they seem unaware that an increase in user satisfaction will also increase system usage and individual impact. IT often becomes an end in itself, instead of a means to an end.

In other words, it’s not the technology itself but what you do with it and how you design it that determines if you will see an indirect increase in productivity or not. And user satisfaction is key.

Where Our Tools Fall Short 

So the question is, how satisfied are we with the systems and tools we need to use, and our digital work environments as a whole? 

Not that satisfied, I would say. 

Below are five reasons why our satisfaction with IT systems and tools at work isn’t anywhere near it could and should be.

1. Wrong Priorities 

The first and most obvious reason is that user satisfaction is never the number one priority when companies invest in IT. 

Usability, for example, was long considered a “nice-to-have” characteristic. Few were willing to pay for it. 

Contrast this to how the consumer markets for digital devices and services work today. A device or digital service that does not please consumers will not have a very long life. In the corporate world, however, employees often have to live with bad systems for decades. 

2. The Expectations Gap

Back in the '90s and early 2000s people mostly used computers and software at work. If they had a computer at home, it was either equivalent to or less capable than what they had at work. They had Microsoft Office at work, and the inferior Microsoft Works version at home. 

Now things are different. We get access to the latest and best devices and services first as consumers. And they are designed to make us want to use them as much and often as possible. The bigger the gap grows between what we know is out there and what we actually get at work, the lower our satisfaction will be.

3. Increasing Complexity 

Over the years, the number of systems and tools we need to interact with have increased, with more and more features added to each of them. And with the increase in tools comes an increase in the complexity of our digital work environment

What is more, the user experience has rarely been consistent across those systems and tools. It differs in everything from visual design and interaction design to details such as data formats. 

This inconsistency increases the cognitive load on us as users, as we have to remember exactly how one system or tool differs from another. 

In other words, we have to divert our cognitive resources from creating value to figuring out how to use systems and tools. 

4. Tools Don't Support Collaboration 

Work is becoming less predictable, less routine-based and increasingly interdependent. We often rely on others to solve problems or to complete a task. How well we work together determines our productivity as individuals as well as an organization. If we don't find the right people to work with, and if we don't work well together, productivity will decrease. Instead of synergies we get sub-optimization, rework, redundant work and other kinds of waste. 

The problem is that most of our systems and tools do not support non-routine and collaborative work well. The vast majority of IT investments have focused at automating transactional processes. For many people, it's still a pain to co-author a document, or impossible to do so without email ping-pong. 

5. Old Habits Die Hard

The majority of organizations are still run by email, phone calls and physical meetings. It’s not uncommon that people spend their entire days in various meetings. Reading and answering emails on their laptops or smartphones takes up much of their time. And even when they get access to communication and collaboration tools, they don't adopt new and smarter ways of communicating and working, instead using the new tools alongside the old ones. 

No wonder people complain about information overload! 

5 Ways to Avoid the Productivity Paradox

Here are five things organizations can do to increase user satisfaction and thereby increase productivity.

1. Make user satisfaction your priority

Employees need a digital work environment designed with the intention to empower them to get their work done. It should close the gap between what they can get as consumers and what they get at work.

2. Reduce complexity

Reduce complexity of individual systems and tools as well as the entire digital work environment. Hide and remove unnecessary features. Remove redundant functionality. Eliminate inconsistencies across systems and tools. 

3. Provide situation-aware services

Provide attractive and easy to use digital tools, designed to fit the situations where the employees need them. Make it seamless to switch from one tool to another, and from one situation to another.

4. Support collaborative work

Introduce the best possible tools for for non-routine and collaborative work. Don't settle for second best. Instead of one-stop shopping, go for a best of breed approach. But make sure the tools are open and integrate well with each other. 

5. Never stop improving

Continuously explore new and smarter ways of working. Help people unlearn and give them time and support to learn the new ways. Make it easy to do things right, and hard to do things the wrong (old) way. If you introduce a tool like Slack, then get rid of internal email all together.

The Productivity Paradox is a Choice

The message I'm trying to send here is that you can escape the productivity paradox, if you have the right approach. The right approach is to empower employees by giving them the best possible user experience. If you choose this approach and give it 100 percent, chances are good productivity will soar.