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Editorial

Improve Productivity by Focusing on Employee Needs

6 minute read
Jed Cawthorne avatar
AI isn't going to boost productivity goals in the short-term, so where should our focus lie?

Five or so years ago, an academic from the University of Toronto visited the legal department of my then employer, a large bank in Canada. He was working with IBM on training Watson to read legal documents and half-jokingly suggested that if our children were about to go to university, they shouldn't choose legal or medical imaging fields, as they would soon be the domain of Watson and its cousins. Five years later, the march of AI continues in both the legal and medical fields, but it's still nowhere near the point of replacing highly trained and experienced lawyers or doctors ... yet.

So we can argue whether Google's LaMDA is sentient or not (hint: it isn't) or fear that we will return from our summer vacation to find we've been replaced by robots, even if the robot in question is only part of an RPA project, but for now we can know our jobs are safe from the robot overlords (for now). Research and development will continue, but productivity in the near future will still rely on humans, not the machines.

Focus on People to Boost Productivity

Last month I suggested that business strategy was far more important than technology implementation. Technology strategy should of course be part of the overall business strategy, as should your HR strategy. Which brings us to every consultant’s favorite triumvirate: People, Process and Technology. When looking to improve employee productivity, we can consider several key topic areas which cover all three bases:

  • Happy employees are productive employees.
  • People need the right tools to do a good job.
  • People need easy and timely access to high quality information.

Putting the focus on people also means focusing on the business processes they work on, and the tools used to enable those processes. It’s all very intertwined, and it should be.

Related Article: It's 2022: Can We Finally Escape the Productivity Paradox?

Flexibility Is a Key Component of Happy Employees

I am not a HR professional and am no expert in ensuring large numbers of employees remain happy and productive, so I will keep this brief. What I will note is when we think of the considerable amount of articles, reports and more coming out on the subject of the return to the office post-COVID-19, 1. with the highly infectious Omicron BA.5 variant still running wild, we are in no way post-COVID and 2. while the pandemic highlighted the effectiveness of working from home or remotely, those concepts were not new. Many businesses had already allowed flexible working practices — including working remotely — as a component of creating happy and productive employees. I would argue that we shouldn't abandon those principles in a push to have people return to the office due to a mis-advised concept that employees are easier to manage if you can see them.

Related Article: Let's Not Go Back to 'Normal'

The Right Tools for the Right Job

There's no shortage of excellent software for even the most niche and specialist business processes. We are similarly well-provisioned with general purpose productivity software, such as Microsoft 365, Google Workspaces, open-source alternatives and a plethora of digital workplace solutions. So we have a lot of software options to keep employees happy and productive, but perhaps we should be thinking more about providing training, help and support to help our people use the chosen tools to complete their tasks. There will probably never be a Tolkien style “one ring to rule them all” productivity software solution (although Microsoft is certainly trying hard with Microsoft 365), so we should keep in mind that many employees will have to regularly use different tools and therefore must frequently context switch between them. Training therefore should include instruction to help them understand and efficiently use different user interfaces. Which means a focus on overall user experience would potentially ease the training burden in the long run.

Learning Opportunities

We would be remiss not to mention one category of software in any discussion of productivity: no code/low code tools. When these tools are put in the hands of business users who are deeply involved in and have commensurate understanding of the issues and problems with their business processes, they are enabled to fix their own problems in a quick and agile manner, with governance and good practices support of their IT organizations.

Related Article: How Your Digital Workplace Design Can Support Psychological Safety

The Final Ingredient: Access to Information

With happy employees working with a set of intuitive and easy to use software tools, we now need to consider the data, information and knowledge they are creating, collaborating on and/or sharing or disseminating to their colleagues. I'm going to use the blanket term information, but depending on the business process we could just as easily be talking about raw data, or highly refined knowledge assets. Obviously, serious consideration needs to be given to security requirements such as access controls, privacy requirements, and secure methods of access, because we cannot take shortcuts with information security, even if that might at times frustrate our employees. The goal here is to reconcile the different needs and requirements if at all possible, making secure access to information intuitive and easy to understand and use.

Ensuring employees have timely access to current, accurate information ensures that the outputs of the business processes themselves are of high quality. The potential for harm that redundant or out of date information or a flood of trivial, unnecessary and unimportant data can cause is significant. We use the apt term ROT to describe this Redundant, Out of data and Trivial information.

So while we should continue to pay attention to the advances in AI technology (including RPA), in the short-term anyone looking to improve productivity will go far by focusing on employee needs. Providing employees with the right tools and the right information to complete their tasks in a timely fashion is an important aspect of creating a happy and productive workforce. Focus on the people, the business processes and the information they work with and productivity will follow.

About the author

Jed Cawthorne

Jed Cawthorne is principal product manager at NetDocuments. He is involved in product innovation and product management and working with customers to make NetDocuments phenomenally successful products even more so.

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