Businesses have been adopting technologies at a dizzying pace since the onset of the pandemic to help support their workforces. And while it’s important that employees have the tools they need to stay connected to their teams and do their jobs effectively, there’s a side effect that many organizations may not be aware of: digital friction.

According to Rob Ryan, director of product marketing at Workgrid, digital friction happens when employees are so overwhelmed by disparate technologies and information overload, that it interferes with work and affects the employee experience (EX). Far from being an employee issue, explained Ryan, it’s something that every business can and should address — sooner rather than later.

“Unfortunately, few organizations realize that they can address digital friction,” said Ryan. “While it’s a known issue by its symptoms, it’s less defined by a formal name. Yet, it’s an immense opportunity for organizational change agents and employee experience leaders to make an impact.” 

Workgrid is a digital assistant provider based in Dover, New Hampshire, and a sponsor of Simpler Media Group's virtual Fall Digital Workplace Experience (DWX) Conference. Ryan presented the session, “Death by Digital Friction: A Simple Approach to Solving the Challenges of the Digital Workplace.” SMG spoke with Ryan about the rise of digital friction in the workplace and how organizations can overcome it.

Work from Home: Higher Productivity, More Digital Friction

Simpler Media Group: Let’s talk about what’s happening in the world of remote and hybrid work today. Do you think employees are having a better experience these days than they did in traditional office environments? Why or why not?

Rob Ryan: By and large, most employees who can work from home have benefited. The cascade of recent research shows people would rather work where it best suits them — and for some, that’s remotely. What’s more significant — there is no going back. Employees have woken up to the fact that they’re more productive at home and no longer waste time commuting, or dealing with office disruptions. Better, there’s more time to spend with friends and family.

Unfortunately, some organizations are still bogged down by a full-time, in-office mindset. We see this with the reports and feedback on the 'Great Resignation.' Employees who are compelled to come back to a physical workspace are resigning in droves. It’s no wonder. There’s been a great amount of pressure to be physically present.

But presence isn’t productivity. Many forward-thinking organizations have realized that people can be extremely productive outside of an office — and even happier. By mandating that people go back to the office after they’ve been more productive at home, employers signal to employees that the organization cares little about their needs. Companies that take this approach will learn that they should focus on the best environment for each employee persona. However, there’s a counterargument to this. Under this new working model, digital friction is only going to increase. This is a situation organizations will need to address.

Rob Ryan: "Presence isn't productivity."

SMG: Can you explain what digital friction is, and how it affects the employee experience?

Ryan: Digital friction is the needless effort employees exert using technology at work. And that ultimately gets in the way of employees focusing on the right tasks and making timely decisions. It arises in many ways but comes about through three main areas: application overload, information overload and digital noise pollution. 

The employee experience is significantly impacted by digital friction. The greater the digital friction, the more negatively impacted the EX will be. For example, on average, workers will waste about 50% of each working day waiting for apps to load, ping-ponging across multiple systems to find information, and being overwhelmed with too many unnecessary notifications which hamper focus and attention.

This leads to downstream impact on employee engagement, strategic alignment, increased stress and more. Most organizations treat digital friction as an unsolvable problem which individual employees will need to manage, but this isn’t wholly accurate.

Application Overload, Too Much Information and Digital Noise Pollution

SMG: Have remote and hybrid work increased digital friction for employees? If so, in what ways?

Ryan: The pandemic accelerated digital friction, especially for organizations that didn’t build in the resilience or work-from-home operations earlier. For many, technology was thrown at the situation with little holistic rationale to ensure teams could connect, communicate and collaborate effectively. This is understandable given the circumstance.

In addition, many organizations onboarded new hires remotely during this time, which leads to less practical learning on ‘what to use when.’ This increases the chances of those new hires finding their own way, rather than adopting best practices.

Learning Opportunities

SMG: What are the biggest causes of digital friction in today’s organizations?

Ryan: Digital friction is all around us, and it creeps up on organizations if not managed properly. First, there’s application overload. This is where information, workflows, tasks and activity are hosted. When there are too many redundant, unrationalized applications within an organization, this leads to lower-quality content and conversation.

Application overload leads to silos, which means increased time to find, discover and access information, workflows and tasks. Employees also lose time familiarizing themselves with less-used user interfaces, information hierarchies, unstructured actions and workflows.

Next, there’s information overload. This is the content, conversations, assets, activities, interactions, tasks and information you act on throughout your day. When there’s more information to sift through, it takes longer to find, evaluate and collaborate on the right information and can impede quick decision-making.

The last cause of digital friction is ‘digital noise pollution.’ This is the exponential echo effect of all the signals, pings and chimes vying for attention with little to no priority, which distracts workers.

The Way to a Friction-Free Digital Workplace

SMG: How are organizations helping their employees get past this friction? Please provide specific examples.

Ryan: First, most SaaS vendors have little benefit in taking an employee-first approach to designing features to help reduce friction. Their products are intended to keep employees’ attention and time within their app, hub or suite. This increases an individual’s product usage to ‘demonstrate value.’

The other side of this challenge is that employees don’t complain about digital friction. This is due to learned behaviors. Most believe that dealing with digital friction is ‘the way it’s always been’ and is a user issue that should be solved with multi-tasking and better time management. 

Enterprises tend to see this in a similar way. Most organizations haven’t looked deeply at the problem to know that there is agnostic technology that can help tie the digital workplace together. At Workgrid, that’s what we do. Our Digital Assistant allows organizations to connect apps from across the enterprise, helping to guide attention and prioritize notifications, information, tasks and actions wherever employees happen to be. 

SMG: What are the benefits employers can expect from having a workplace that is free of digital friction?

Ryan: If organizations look across the employee experience to uncover and smooth out the painful areas of friction, they can expect to see the following benefits:

  • Greater Productivity: When employees spend less time trying to find or access applications and are given contextualized timely actions, you increase approval speed and decision-making. This leads to more efficient operations, recaptured productivity and employee satisfaction.
  • Increased Employee Satisfaction: When employees’ attention is guided and assisted, there’s less noise and app hopping. This helps strategic alignment and employee engagement, which has an immense downstream impact. Employees can focus on the right information and stay aligned with team and business objectives. In addition, when satisfaction and engagement go up, unplanned absenteeism and employee attrition go down.
  • Increased Revenue: When employees are provided with an agnostic Digital Assistant that can help optimize and support their day, they spend less time trying to find the right information, hunting in the wrong areas or inputting redundant workflows. This helps employees, especially frontline and sales, to deliver a greater CX experience to their prospects and customers.