The UK electorate sent shockwaves across markets, businesses and governments alike by voting in favor of leaving the European Union. Questions about economics, growth and business productivity are at the forefront of many peoples’ minds and will remain there for quite some time to come.

The Brexit vote occurred at a time already characterized by considerable nervousness about the state of the economy. 

Mary Meeker of KPCB venture capitalists pointed out a worldwide slump in growth in her 2016 Internet Trends opus. She tells us that in the last six years we have seen growth rates fall below the 20-year average, concluding that “Easy Growth Is Behind Us,” while the winners will be those who use digital services to “innovate, increase efficiency, lower prices, create jobs.”

Whether you agree with Meeker's digital optimism or not, what is certain is that what will set business apart in the competitive playing field is how they equip themselves internally with the right tools, services and processes. 

Slumping Productivity

Accordingly, as pollsters Gallup point out, the stakes are high. Disengaged employees are costing the US economy between $450 billion and $550 billion in lost productivity every year. McKinsey concur with another obvious point: intrinsically motivated staff perform 16 percent better than workers who are burnt out. 

There can be no better time to use digital workplaces, intranets and other related technologies to help alleviate this crisis in productivity (and engagement too). If we can provide staff with access to the right tools, at the right time, then we can go some way to raise their overall effectiveness. A worthwhile challenge if ever there was one. 

What Happened to Productivity?

Productivity is all about raising the output or the speed in which new products or services are created or delivered. How do you get more value from your effort, using the the same or less input? 

Access to technology, better tools, more efficient processes, can help a lot here. Yet technology is not the whole answer. On both sides of the Atlantic, since the mid-2000s, productivity has stagnated. 

The full answer why is complicated (and beyond the scope of this article). However, two important factors begin to explain what has given many economists nightmares of a problem colloquially known as the "productivity paradox." 

First, business investment across the board has slowed. Its character has also changed. Today, businesses prefer investing their spare cash (Apple, Microsoft and Google, for example, together own 23 percent of all US non-financial sector cash) in financial markets rather than in creating new products and services. 

In the FT, Grant Thornton revealed that their survey of 2,500 business leaders, companies have given up on building their R&D capacity (firewall). Instead, they prefer investing in shares, pension schemes and buying out other companies. This is a risk averse and somewhat complacent approach to creating new opportunities.

Another big factor: many western economies are failing to consistently invest in large-scale infrastructure necessary to support long-term economic growth. For example, successive UK governments have preferred incentivising businesses by promising to cut red tape or handing out tax breaks. 

Businesses need more than "paper" incentives. Rather they need the long-term confidence that access to cheap energy, transportation, distribution centers and highly skilled labour can bring. These vital ingredients help raise productivity and save businesses the need to train low-skilled workers or replace outdated transport links. 

Enterprise Social Software's Day in the Sun

In spite of these two major factors, we’ve seen considerable growth and optimism in one area: internet-related digital technology. Digital tools, services and networks have clearly become an integral component to growth and offer businesses an opportunity to increase productivity. 

Yet technology is a necessary, yet indeterminate, factor in raising productivity. When invested in the wrong way (or for the wrong reasons), the value of brilliant tools like enterprise social collaboration software can quickly evaporate. 

Even today it takes a brave soul to put a financial value against what internal social networking tools can help bring about. This is especially true if no corresponding investment is occurring in R&D, infrastructure and so on. That's what's relegated many of these social tools to languish as a kind of digital albatross up until now. As the story is often repeated: Great idea, but come back when the timing is better. 

The renewed emphasis on growth and productivity opens a window of opportunity for these tools to prove their value. The question we must answer is what role can digital workplace technologies, collaboration spaces and a growing multitude of apps play in helping businesses raise their productivity game? 

Three Challenges for the Digital Workplace

To make the most of this opportunity, companies should consider three areas over the coming months:

First, as McKinsey recently pointed out, with so many mergers and acquisitions happening, IT has to be at the forefront of helping bring about business change. 

The same holds true of productivity. For years IT has arguably taken a back-room role, synonymous with managing corporate risk. Security threats, hardware failure and provisioning access to technology remain important issues. IT has a chance to reposition itself to remain relevant. 

When customer-facing business managers are crying out for better cloud-based apps, tools and processes (often bypassing any central sanction), IT needs to quickly step into the breech with a plan. 

A digital workplace strategy is a crucial starting point to rectify what could turn into a digital mess. Having a platform in place will assure staff with secure, standardized access to the right tools and processes. It will be an important move.

Second, staff need greater choice of tools suited to how they want to work. A digital workplace should create a digital ecosystem — like Microsoft’s Office365 suite, along with other add-ons — that lets staff choose how they prefer to work. 

Restricting how staff works can be counterintuitive and dismisses individual experience. Teams, departments, functions, all have different needs, operate at different speeds; and have varying levels of technical maturity. 

Cultural differences are important too. They shape what form of communication and collaboration works best. Does everyone like discussing ideas in ‘public’ using tools like Yammer? Or are more invite-only private ones like WhatsApp better? 

Neither approach is wrong. Yet forcing everyone to communicate the same way can kill off much needed spontaneity and creativity. Recognizing these subtleties can make a significant difference. It helps reduce the barriers to how work gets done.

Third, and by no means least, a digital workplace should let staff configure, personalize and tailor their working environment how they like. This is not about encouraging aimless tinkering with personal preferences. Rather, what staff needs to get their work done is less noise, interruptions. 

Give them more relevant content and tools tailored to their specific needs. That includes access from whichever devices and in whatever locations they prefer to work in. Another likely outcome of this is less overhead spent on training, or explaining where things are. Hours lost having to find the right content in an ocean of unnecessary documents, tools and procedures must be fixed. Doing this can greatly help boost productivity.  

While these ideas are no panacea to the productivity crisis, together they can help businesses prepare for the long road ahead.