The digital workplace has been marketed as a lever for organizational performance for so long that it is taken for granted. But on closer inspection, this is not always the case and it can even be the opposite.
As you may have noticed, I have been wondering about the work of knowledge workers for some time now and I was working on a series of articles (in progress) about its poor organization (or even its absence of organization), the fact that nobody really knows how this work is done because of the lack of measurement (and the lack of willingness to measure) and therefore that nothing improves (because of the lack of measurement and because it suits everyone to say that since nothing is seen or quantified, the problems do not exist).
And it’s in this context that a few weeks ago I attended the presentation of the State of the Art report on internal transformation of organizations at my friends from Lecko. A very inspiring moment that only confirmed my thoughts and an imposing document (380 pages!) that I will have to mention frequently in the future and that inspires me a series of reflections that will complete and even reinforce mine.
But before going further (it takes time to read and digest 380 pages) I will try to take a step back and present in my own way the main lessons I have learned.
Technology is only a tool and that’s the problem
When the topic of the digital workplace was the focus of this blog, I explained the relative lack of interest in digital workplace projects by two reasons.
The first one was the too high expectations born from the promises of the vendors, whose discourse has been for a long time that the technology carries its own uses and therefore generates change.
The second was precisely that nothing was done to transform the way we work together and that using new tools to work in an old way could only be disappointing: we lost our habits without finding any benefits in return.
You will tell me that at some point there was an awareness and that much was done to adopt these tools. Yes, and that’s the problem. I have never been comfortable with this adoption logic and this has not changed over time.
First of all, because it was played out at an individual level, whereas a collective approach was needed. If one person in a team (and often the central person, the manager) does not adopt new ways of working, the whole team is dragged down with him.
Secondly, precisely because we are not talking about using tools but about working differently, individually but above all collectively, which means rethinking structural things from top to bottom. It is only at this point that the tools take make sens.
I quote from the report:
“Modernizing and Transforming lead to a radically different relationship with the user: in one case it’s about adapting the technology to its context in the second to encourage the person to change and help them rethink their practices.”
Still in this logic because the use cases were created according to the capabilities of the chosen tools and not the needs of the users, which led to neglecting real needs to create others that did not exist. Thus creating problems.
The way of working is therefore often dysfunctional in relation to the tools used.
And what is the purpose of technology, of digital, in the business? To do things faster and on a larger scale, nothing more and nothing less.
And when you put technology on top of a dysfunctional organization, you only make it malfunction faster and on a larger scale. Not only do you not gain in performance but you often lose!
This phenomenon is increased by the new forms of work that are emerging. It is not so much that remote work has created new problems, but that it has pushed already strained organizations, operating modes and managerial models to their limits, so much so that it has no longer been possible to hide the dust under the carpet.
In short, as the report states very well:
“Overcoming the productivity ceiling linked to the rebound effect of digital, adapting one’s practices to the context of hybrid work or gaining agility to adapt one’s activity to the consequences of an increasingly fast-changing environment, all of this involves changing one’s methods and goes beyond the use of new tools. The arrival of new tools is an opportunity to question one’s practices in order to imagine new ones, without being deprived of being inspired by those put in place by others.”
This is an opportunity to reopen the debate on Solow’s paradox (1987), which states that “We see computers everywhere, except in productivity statistics“.
A human capital at the end of its rope
I said earlier that when you put technologies on top of a dysfunctional organization, you only make it dysfunctional faster and on a larger scale. And when this goes on too long, you end up breaking your production tool.
It is easy to imagine a factory where production flows are not optimized, where each machine is asked to do more and more, and faster and faster, because the work-in-progress is accumulating. We all know that we can push a machine to 110% of its capacity for a while, but only for a while, otherwise it breaks down. This is something we can all visualize!
Well, in an open space, in a hybrid business, it’s exactly the same thing! Except that the machines are humans and the flows and work in progress are not visible.
I have often dealt with this problem from the only angle of pure performance and productivity because it is simply the only discourse that the final decision makers are able to hear when it is necessary to invest in order to deeply transform.
Lecko took another angle by studying the uses of a population of 20,000 employees over two years and by interpreting the results with the help of Cog’X, an expert firm in cognitive sciences.
I really recommend reading this part of the report because it really brings a new dimension, often perceived but never objectified to this extent.
“It is clear that the time and efficiency gains brought by digital technology are no longer progressing. This can be explained by an increasing number of requests and information flows, but also by a slower evolution of changes in communication and collaboration practices within large organizations.
The saturation phenomenon is aggravated by the crumbling of information on multiple shared spaces (sometimes different modules (OneDrive, Sharepoint, Teams and other equivalent solutions, not offering consolidated views) and the dispersion of communication channels with different messaging apps (Chat, Mail, team space, Whatsapp, etc).”
Should we talk about Solow again?
I’ve been seeing and noticing this problem for (too) long. In the same way I see the response of businesses and managers: employees are not well organized, do not know how to prioritize, are not productive. It’s their fault. Simple and simplistic.
10% of employees are exposed to mental overload and fatigue, caused by an excessive amount of emails and meetings, and the absence of sufficient recovery time.
10%, some will find it high, others not so much. But I invite you to think about the impact of this 10% on the others.
Not only do they increase the workload of others, but we can also consider that these people are at the center of certain decision-making circuits, of certain processes, and that their overload slows down the work of everyone else. We can also fear, when these are profiles with high responsibility, that if they were no longer able to carry out their functions, the impact on the organization would be major.
This is the only information I lack in this excellent work: who are these people, what impact do they have on the collective performance, why are they in this situation.
Although we have the answer to the why: there are of course individual deviances but above all a structural problem. And my opinion is that we are quick to stigmatize individual behaviors in order to, as always, avoid addressing structural problems. Let’s not forget that when things don’t work as expected, it is in 94% of the cases the fault of the system, not of the people.
The extension of the interaction time is cutting into the recovery time that is essential for our brains as well as for our whole body. In addition, these people have less time to rest and less time to engage in non-work activities that are essential to their well-being.
The excessive number of e-mails sent indicates an extremely large amount of information to process in a working day. Faced with the limits of our attention and working memory, which are particularly solicited in these employees, we can therefore worry about an increased risk of mental overload. Finally, the large number of meetings, which represent particularly costly activities from a cognitive point of view, especially when they are conducted remotely, subject employees to greater risks of mental fatigue. Placed at the heart of information processing, these populations are therefore subject to three major risks for their efficiency and well-being.
This is a subject that can be approached in two ways: that of strict performance and that of mental load and well-being. But let there be no mistake: in today’s world of worlk, workload and mental workload are exactly the same thing.
Meetings, the remedy that turns out to be worse than the evil
When an organism malfunctions, it tries to generate an answer to its problems. In this case, it is understandable that in the face of the issues I have just mentioned, businesses need to tighten the screws and adjust constantly. And the best way to do this is through meetings!
The report is very complete on this subject as well and especially on the impact of video conferencing on both the way meetings are organized and managed as well as their impact on the mental load.
A subject that businesses are aware of but which I think they once again refer to individual behavioral issues. But :
Meetings are the result of the organization’s functioning. They are not necessarily the result of explicit choices, but for all that, the modes of cooperation chosen are the translation of the organizational and managerial system.
Do they achieve their objectives? For 58% of employees, one meeting out of two could be shortened or eliminated!
In fact, they take time away from people who already have the least amount of time and, because of the way they are held, add a cognitive load to others, beyond what is reasonable.
Meetings therefore only add to the problems they are supposed to combat.
The digital workplace: the weak point of environmental performance
Let’s finish with a very trendy topic, the environmental impact of the digital workplace and our digital uses at work. Once again, the report deals with this subject in depth.
It seems obvious to me that even though businesses say they are doing a lot on the subject (and even though they are generally doing a lot less), there is one subject they are not very concerned about: the impact of work practices.
On the observed panel (20,000 users over two years) CO2 emissions have increased by 62% in two years (and contrary to popular belief, it is not email but OneDrive that is the biggest culprit) and only 15% of users have reduced them. And this in the greatest indifference to the subject.
Digital technology has often been seen as an answer to environmental issues, whereas it is central to the problem, but in my opinion, employees have an idealized or even biased vision of the subject. The proof: according to an IPSOS/Lecko study, 37% of people do not consider any action to adopt responsible digital practices in their business.
The proverb says “When the wise man shows the moon, the fool looks at the finger”. Today, as the report reminds us, digital has overtaken air travel in terms of CO2 emissions and will double in a few years.
There is a lot to be done in terms of transforming work practices but also in the way the software we use every day is designed and operates, because it has made a number of deviations possible, such as acting as if storage space were infinite and neutral from an environmental point of view. It’s funny to see how the cloud is disempowering on the subject when in the mid 2000s most businesses didn’t want to hear about it.
And we’re only talking about internal uses here: I can’t wait for the day when we question the digital practices of marketing departments and especially emailing, which has an environmental cost for sending and especially for storing messages that not only nobody reads but that most of the time we don’t want to receive.
This new edition of the State of the Art of Internal Transformation of Organizations brings a fresh look and angles totally in line with our times.
It also questions the structural dimension of work organization which, more than technological answers, are at the heart of the subject.
But, in addition to asking the right questions and opening the eyes on certain subjects, it also brings methodological answers, a rare thing.
In short, a must read.