The modern American pursuit of workplace productivity is not new. In the 1980s, American companies experienced a productivity boom, as filing cabinets and typewriters were replaced by word-processing and personal computers. In the 90s, the Internet escalated this trend, giving workers quick access to information and the power to communicate across the globe, instantly. In the 2000s, however, workplace productivity rates dipped. The decline maps roughly to the Recession and introduction of social media into our culture, but some economists actually attribute the decline to a lag in adoption of emerging tech into the workplace. In 2016, Robert Gordon, of Northwest University, observed that “In much of the economy, daily practices of business methods are not being influenced by the recent innovations in terms of robots, smartphones, or the other things that have happened more recently.”
Productivity and technology are inherently linked. And after a decades-long dip, labor productivity in the first quarter of 2019 in the non-farm business sector (the largest of the US economy), grew 2.4% compared to the previous year, according to the US Department of Labor. Why the sudden increase? Corporations are becoming much more aggressive in bringing new technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics into the workplace.
In 2019, Americans are working hard, and we have more tools and technologies to aid our work than ever before. How many tools and platforms do you use to do your work? At Rightpoint, I can count at least six, from social collaboration platforms like Slack and Airtable to our Intranet. According to a 2019 Qualtrics / Okta survey of 1,200 US knowledge workers, companies are deploying more workplace tools and apps over time – 163 apps on average for large companies (2,000 or more employees). And companies are pairing the more dominant office productivity tools such as Office 365 with other apps that address their unique needs. The same study found that 76% of Office 365 customers are using apps that are duplicative of Microsoft’s offering. 45% have Salesforce, 36% are using AWS, and 28% are chatting on Slack, and 28% subscribe to the G Suite, as well.
This explosion and overlap of workplace technologies offer a lot of opportunity for researchers like me, who are interested in how people behave and communicate at work. We have access to more data on employee engagement and efficiency than ever before. At the same time, the mining and interpretation of this data poses serious practical and ethical questions, such as the right way to harvest and merge disparate datasets from multiple apps and tools used by employees (not to mention who owns and controls that data).
This challenge is pervasive in corporate America. Many organizations today are, as the saying goes, data-rich and insight-poor. Advertisers can now measure how ads are delivered to individual people across devices and channels, but many struggle to derive actionable insights from even the most sophisticated attribution platforms. Businesses prioritize and make decisions based on what’s readily measurable or quantifiable. Global tech ethnographer Tricia Wang coined the phrase “Thick Data” in 2016 to describe this trend, and to position the value of ethnographic work in a world that prioritizes data science and massive data sets. She writes, “Thick Data is data brought to light using qualitative, ethnographic research methods that uncover peoples’ emotions, stories and models of their world. It’s the sticky stuff that’s difficult to quantify.”
How can we overcome these challenges? I’m biased, but research and analytics need to play a key role in helping organizations learn and evolve, more so than they do today. In the example of digital workplaces, it’s important that both qualitative and quantitative research methods are used to inform the discovery and design process. Sitting with an employee and observing how they combine multiple tools and apps will identify user goals (and unmet needs) that a quantitative survey may not – but that same survey will provide important context because it will reach a larger group of employees that one-on-one interviews will. And we must spend time marrying qual and quat learnings into a cohesive story that we can apply to the strategy and design process. As Tricia Wang writes, “to have impact, numbers need stories, and vice versa.”
It’s also important to think holistically about measuring digital workplaces. According to Simplr’s 2019 “State of the Intranet” survey, 49% of companies with intranet initiatives struggle to track their intranet’s ROI and have not set clear goals. As remote working becomes more common and the first post-digital generation enters the workplace, the importance of measuring and studying digital workplaces will only increase. After all, productivity is not just good for the bottom line – it leads to more empowered, inspired individuals and teams.