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Can you remember when email first entered the mainstream? It was embraced with wild abandon by both consumers and businesses. No more faxes! No more pointless meetings! No more lengthy phone conversations about something that could be handled with a short note! You had time now to do more productive work.

Years went by and the rose colored glasses started to slip. First, there was this thing called spam. Worse, there was this thing called cybercrime. People’s email accounts were filling up with junk. The email industry fought back and developed add-ons and feature sets to enhance productivity, but it never seemed to be quite enough. A few cycles later, email faced a reckoning when social media was fresh and Facebook was new to the scene. Could it be that email was dead or at least dying, to be replaced by these new apps? 

The answer ultimately turned out to be no, but email sure wasn’t viewed as it was in the early days. Messaging apps came to the market, such as Gchat and Slack, and it was lather rinse repeat on the question about email’s viability.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a world without email no matter its limitations. But as productivity tools continue to come to market and continue to make improvements, it is fair to use email as a symbol of how these advances could play out. It is also fair to ask — especially by companies that are investing in these tools — are expectations of constant increases in productivity realistic?

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Unlimited Productivity? The Answer Is No

Ian McClarty, president and CEO of PhoenixNAP Global IT Services, said no. “I have seen productivity initiatives show gains at the beginning only to reach a point where the tools can impede the very problem they are trying to solve. There comes a time with many productivity tools when the downside of the tools starts outweighing the benefits.” 

In some cases that point comes very quickly, said Glenn Gow, a marketing partner with Clear Ventures. With some applications, “the productivity curve actually goes down initially, then it goes up, and then it eventually goes up more and more slowly, diminishing in growth.” Most users won't tolerate a significant initial decline in productivity and for that reason, many cool technologies never get off the ground, he said.

Sometimes, though, the fault lies at the feet of the vendor making the product. Tools can become too difficult to use if a company producing them is too obsessed with adding new bells and whistles, rather than sticking with the core productivity features which made people adopt the tools to begin with, said Kris Hughes, senior content marketing manager with ProjectManager.com.

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What to Do When Productivity Starts to Decline

Whatever the reason for a decline in productivity, there are steps a company can take to at least maintain its current level of productivity, even if it no longer sees continual advances. McClarty suggested soliciting employee feedback on the tools. “Your staff is your greatest sounding board. Create a simple survey with Google forms to receive feedback and recommendations. Learn how your productivity tools are being used.”

He also suggested not automatically updating to every version change the vendor makes to the tool. Even simple changes can have an enormous impact on how the tools work and impact employees' ability to use them, he said. “Consider not adopting the latest and greatest version change immediately in case there are problems with it that are not obvious until a significant customer base has been using it.”

In dire cases, hire a consultant to review your infrastructure and software, advised Emmanuel Frost, CEO and co-founder of Brand Alignment. “You may be facing a bottleneck in another aspect of the company that is giving the illusion of diminishing returns. By fixing this separate area, you can return to productivity and see far better results based on whatever your KPIs are.”