Business Today

Sensibly Hi-Tech

By Ben Waber   Delhi     Print Edition: January 15, 2017
Sensibly Hi-Tech
Investopad's premises in Gurgaon (Photo: Vivan Mehra)

How beneficial is technology for workplace performance? At a high level, we know that it makes us more productive. We can search digital records in seconds rather than days. We can rapidly iterate tasks with co-workers by sending quick messages. We can collaborate with teams in other locations instantaneously. That's not to say that technology is universally positive for work. One could argue that certain aspects hinder performance through distraction and interruption. Here, we'll investigate the benefits and drawbacks of technology at work.

Ben Waber, who leads Humanyze - a behavioural analytics company that uses wearable sensing technology and digital communication data to transform how companies are managed - says people are terrible at dealing with distractions and interruptions and so technology developers need to design with that in mind.

Let's start with a negative - distraction. When employees are distracted from their work due to multi-tasking, their productivity drops by about 25 per cent. This has become increasingly prevalent today with the proliferation of technological tools that we use in our day-to-day work. We spend a minute writing an e-mail, then five minutes poring over a document, then six minutes on our phone, not to mention checking Facebook or texting friends. We're instantly accessible, which means we also feel obligated to be on every channel all the time. In some sectors, particularly the ones that don't receive large improvements in performance from automation and instantaneous communication, these distractions negate the positive impacts of the technology mentioned above. As Indian workplaces, too, take to automating the various tasks at a fast pace, they will also have to look at minimising the loss of man hours due to overuse of technology.

E-mails, chat and phone calls can also break concentration through direct interruption. An employee is working on one task, and then suddenly he or she hears the Pavlovian "ding" of an e-mail entering the inbox. The response is automatic - open the inbox, read the mail, and then go back to the task at hand.

This interruption is not necessarily bad. A seminal study by Gloria Mark at UC Irvine showed that when people were interrupted by telephone or IMs, they completed the task they were working on more quickly. But this came at a cost: they were more stressed and had to exert more effort to complete the task.

By lowering the barriers to mass communication, technology has enabled us to interrupt people or waste time without realising it. I can send a meeting invite to 1,000 people with little effort today. Before computers, it used to take weeks. If you've been on a teleconference with more than three people, you know that the vast majority of that time is wasted. Now think of 10, 20, even 100 people on one of those calls. If that's a one-hour call for 100 people, you've conservatively wasted one month of man hours.

Now let's look more at the positive side. Technological benefits are chiefly in two areas - automation of repetitive tasks and optimisation of how people work. In the past, automation has rapidly improved performance in fields such as manufacturing (through robots on the assembly line) and retail (ordering kiosks at restaurants). This means that instead of needing to focus on the minutiae of those tasks, people can focus on managing the business.

Today this automation is increasingly entering the office environment. For example, the start-up, x.ai, automates scheduling of meetings. You do not have to actively manage a barrage of back and forth e-mails trying to settle on a spot on the calendar. A bot will do it for you. This saves each employee 10 minutes per week, leading to a 1-2 per cent improvement in performance. Small increases like this may seem inconsequential, but for a large organisation with billions of dollars in revenues, these benefits add up quickly.

Computers are extremely good at recognising patterns over large data sets but they are terrible at thinking out of the box

Optimisation is even more powerful since there are many things we do at work that are incredibly ineffective. If one employee thinks that everyone in a team should take a break at the same time to improve performance, is that opinion based on subjective experience or is it a valid statistical conclusion based on data from hundreds or thousands of workers?

At Humanyze, we directly attacked that problem by analysing communication patterns of tens of thousands of employees of Fortune 500 companies. This enables companies to ask simple but critical questions about the business. Does the management talk to the engineering team? How much do the best sales people communicate with customers?

Let's take an example. The call centres of a major US bank were reporting wildly different performance numbers. This despite the fact that these were identical in terms of process, training and demographics. Humanyze technology showed that people with very cohesive groups had the highest performance. Using this data, the bank changed processes to ensure more break time and informal get-togethers, increasing performance by 20 per cent.

In the future, companies will do faster and faster tests with this technology. Now that you know the state of the world, you can split different parts of the company into test and control groups to see if a new decision really works before rolling it out for the entire company. Soon, we'll even be able to suggest targeted changes based on what has worked in other organisations. Want a team to be able to focus more? You can look at the five ways this has been done in teams that look identical to the target.

There are, of course, some things that algorithms and technology will not be able to solve in the foreseeable future. Computers are extremely good at recognising patterns over large data sets but they're terrible at thinking out of the box. An algorithm can determine how to optimise crop yields, for example, but it can't figure out if the farm would make more money by turning a field into a corn maze. Until we can completely replicate human intelligence in a computer, tangential thinking will remain the province of humans.

Technology helps us work better when it plays to its strengths and complements what people are good at. People are extremely good at coming up with new ideas and communicating complex information quickly. Computers are terrible at that. Rather than fight that and try to turn humans into computers and vice versa, we should realise that we need to use and develop technology sensibly. Do we really need yet another communication tool? People are terrible at dealing with distractions and interruptions, so technology developers need to design with that in mind. Should we really be making a decision about how 10,000 people are going to work based on gut instinct alone? Subjective experiences are great for coming up with new ideas, but have a poor track record when it comes to optimisation and continuous improvement.

The future is bright. Technology can continue to positively impact work, thanks to its increased reach. As a human society, we've continued to work more and more effectively over the centuries precisely because we've embraced technology. We need to continue this embrace. We just also need our technology to understand a bit more about what it means to be human.

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