Tackling the productivity paradox

Microsoft
UK used its staff as guinea pigs in a Work Foundation study to find out if
mobile technology has a positive impact on productivity. Sue Weekes reports

Technology
is supposed to make us work smarter and faster and in many cases it does.
Mobile technology is supposed to unleash yet more power to do our jobs better,
but it also liberates us to carry out our work away from a static office
environment. However, productivity gains from the use of such information and
communications technology have not always proved tangible and in the IT world,
this is known as ‘the productivity paradox’.

As
part of a bid to give its customers solid proof of return on investment,
Microsoft UK used its staff as guinea pigs in a research project conducted with
The Work Foundation to assess whether mobile technology such as broadband and
tablet PCs have a positive impact on productivity.

What
Microsoft did

The
research project tied in with Microsoft’s planned roll-out of the latest mobile
technologies to a cross-section of staff across the organisation (despite the
nature of Microsoft’s business, not all staff were ‘techies’).

The
technology included ‘SMART’ phones (mobile phones that offer features such as
wireless e-mail access), tablet PCs and ADSL (broadband) internet connections
at home.

Its
usefulness was evaluated over an eight-month period in three phases: collection
of baseline data at roll-out, investigation of its initial impact and interim
recommendations and investigation of actual impact and learning from the
roll-out.

Phase
one was based on a survey of 443 people, which quizzed them on attitudes to and
expectations of working with new technology; phase two  involved one-to-one telephone interviews;
and the final phase featured focus groups and another survey.

What
Microsoft found

Phase
1:
Most staff had high expectations of the technology and were enthusiastic
about using it. But there was some concern that it might affect work-life
balance.

Phase
2:
The benefits were beginning to emerge, especially in terms of informal
homeworking facilitated by broadband internet connections and using the SMART
phone to keep on top of e-mails. It was felt that the technology made for more
flexible approaches to both the how and where of working.

Three
months after roll-out, although generally positive, staff began raising
concerns around training and support, hardware functionality and the impact of
mobile technology on work-life balance. Some expressed concern that the
technology potentially made them too available 24/7.

Phase
3:
Six months after roll-out, the discussion had moved away from concerns
about functionality and work-life balance as employees found out more about the
new technology.

Benefits
cited included:


Constant access to up-to-date contacts and calendars and information leading to
increased responsiveness and improved customer care.


Improved information handling, organising and sharing.


More creative and co-operative working. This led to changes in working
practices, including taking Tablet PCs into meetings and the instant recording
and sharing of minutes.

  Better work-life balance.

One
of the employee-led initiatives to come out of the project was the move to set
an agreed etiquette and establish a clarity of expectations to support the use of
the new technology. This included an agreement between staff and colleagues
over people’s availability to avoid the ‘always on call’ executive becoming a
reality. The etiquette now forms an important part of Microsoft’s evolving
mobile working culture.

Conclusions

The
project showed that productivity gains are possible. But it also showed that
new technology, like any change at work, can be met with resistance.

Microsoft
says its evaluation illustrated a ‘U’ shaped curve in gains as staff progress
through a process of change in working practices.

“It
is not just  the design of the
technology that needs to be considered,” states the report. “Attention needs to
be given to providing applicable support in terms of training, flexibility to
change working practices, appropriate management and leadership and the
development of new processes and procedures, protocols and etiquettes to
facilitate effective adoption of the technology.”

Microsoft
has put together a set of key factors that drive a successful roll-out of
mobile technology.

Key
data


82 per cent of respondents think new technology has increased their personal
productivity, with many stating that their performance has improved by as much
as 50 to 100 per cent.


82 per cent say the new technology enables them to work anywhere they want.


90 per cent believe new technology has allowed them to find new ways of
working.


68 per cent agree that having broadband at home has made it easier to do their
job and 58 per cent believe it has improved their performance.


86 per cent report that SMART phones enable them to keep on top of their
diaries.


74 per cent say the new technology has improved their opinion of Microsoft as a
place to work.


91 per cent  say that the new technology
makes Microsoft a ‘cool’ place to work right now.

The
drivers of a successful roll-out


Provide suitable support and training to staff, taking care to accommodate
individual learning styles


How staff will use the technology to its best advantage will depend greatly on
their job roles and opportunities to experiment with how to do this. It is
important to allow staff time and space to go through the learning curve that
accompanies any new tool use. Staff can benefit from peer support in this
respect.


Organisations should ensure that staff do not receive too much too soon and
that current workloads are sympathetic to the learning curves and possible
initial dips in productivity. This may require staggered or flexible roll-out
schedules.


Appreciating that the use of technology is likely to result in changes in
working practices, and that these changes will, in turn, require different
leadership styles and management practices. Managing a team, or being managed
remotely can be very different to managers and staff being in an office
together. Managers and staff may need to be prepared for this.


Clear expectations and boundaries for work-life balance are necessary.  Organisations should establish protocols and
guidelines to help staff manage their work-life balance, and be clear about
what is and is not expected of them and their availability. Without these
precautions, natural diligence and competitiveness or a simple lack of
awareness and appreciation of others’ boundaries and arrangements can lead to
intrusions and over working – which can inhibit productivity.


There is a need to consider the culture shift that changes in working practices
and attitudes will lead to. Organisations will need to agree new etiquettes to
support these changes.


Changes in working practices and cultures are likely to have other knock-on
effects, such as different usage of offices and less or more face-to-face
interaction. It is important that the organisation considers these and, where
necessary, takes remedial action to prevent increased advantages in some areas
of work resulting in disadvantages elsewhere. 


Staff can begin to yield the benefits from the technology from the beginning,
but the real benefit often comes after they have passed through their learning
curve. This does not have to be the ceiling, however. When provided with a
supportive learning environment, staff will naturally seek to continually
increase the benefits they yield from the technology – through both adapting
their use of the technology to their roles and their roles to what the
technology can do. This can often result in staff finding new benefits, over
and above those imagined by the designers.

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