Why digital communications are making people less productive

By Neil Patrick

Why do 71% of US workers feel unhappy and unproductive?

The digital communication revolution creates an exciting new world of opportunity if we can harness it to achieve our goals.

But there is worrying data which shows that over two thirds of workers in the US feel unhappy and unproductive in their work and much of this can be attributed to digital information overload.

How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

It’s easier to understand this paradox if we accept that 20th century business models based on constantly increasing productivity and top down command and control no longer work at least for many knowledge-based organisations.

This way of managing organisations when combined with digital communications has a negative impact on both productivity and employee satisfaction levels.

How come?

Employee empowerment and lateral and collaborative ways of working are hugely valuable currency for the 21st century enterprise. This way of working is harmonious with the characteristics of the digital age. Just a few days ago, I reported here how Zappos is taking the bold step of removing managerial job titles and authorities in keeping with this philosophy.

To capitalise on this paradigm shift, an organisation needs to fundamentally rethink its values and culture. But many will struggle with the new levels of trust and delegated authority required to make this happen.

If we apply it to a 20th century culture based organisation, digital communication has as many or more negative impacts as positive ones. For example, at the sharp end, people are swamped with email. Instead of engaging in really productive work, they invest far too much time trying to appear that they are adding value by merely adding yet more to the communication overload.

They devote more and more of their time trying to appear productive, when in fact they are becoming less so. Open office environments, designed to lessen barriers to communication, have the opposite effect as workers pay more attention to trying to be seen to be busy than actually doing the things which really create value for the organisation and importantly boost their satisfaction and sense of self-worth.

Technology now means that most of us can work from almost anywhere for much of the time. In fact most people that work from home report that their productivity levels soar when they do this. But again, applied within a 20th century cultural framework, flexible working creates as many problems as it solves due to resentment and suspicion that co-workers are not working when they cannot be seen at the office.

I believe that most organisations have not yet fully grasped how to redesign themselves to accommodate the new open and collaborative models that characterise 21st century working. A perfect example of this was yesterdays’ post here about how JP Morgan got their Twitter strategy so catastrophically wrong. Essentially they were combining a 20th century command and control mentality with 21st century media and networks with disastrous outcomes.

In this brilliant RSA animate, Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, describes what might be possible if more organisations embraced the full, empowering potential of technology and critically combined it with a truly open, collaborative and flexible working culture.

In other words, a culture which is consistent with the characteristics of the technology it uses.

It’s revolutionary stuff, but I suspect it describes not an imminent transformation rather the direction of evolution of the only the most enlightened organizations.

So whilst I share the vision, I think sadly we’re not going to see too many changes too soon.

And 71% of people are still going to be unhappy and unproductive for a good while yet…

What do you think?


  1. I think jobs will have to be designed around the technology as much as practical more of the time. It's here, we're addicted to it, as much as some of us (myself included) wish we could completely cut ties with it, we find ourselves "needing" it at least an hour a day.

  2. Thanks or posting your thoughts Adam. I agree it's like an addiction for many, not least those who design it. The old adage of good design that, 'form follows function' seems to have been forgotten by some technologists, who seems to often decide that because 'we can, we should'. We consequently have technology dictating our actions rather than supporting and enabling our true goals.