How to Help Your Employees Digitally Declutter
Today’s employees are better equipped to do their jobs than ever — or more accurately, over equipped.
In the mad dash to introduce new applications, collaboration platforms and other tools to support the move to remote work in 2020, companies essentially buried their employees.
Some employees are now attempting to "declutter” their digital workplace through more effective usage of technology and more thoughtful communication practices — and employers play a role in that process.
Digital Friction Abounds
The recent onslaught of new technology means employees are often extending unnecessary effort to wade through all of it each day — a concept Gartner calls digital friction.
According to one study, the average employee switches between 35 job-critical applications more than 1,100 times every day. And research from Harvard Business Review found that just to perform certain transactions, employees had to switch between 22 different applications and web properties, which resulted in toggling between windows and apps more than 3,600 times in an average day.
All of this context-switching increases stress and makes it harder to focus.
To make matters worse, ChenMed Chief Learning Officer Christopher Lind said some employees might be using even more applications. Those who are unaware of, struggle to use or find existing company tools unhelpful often turn to outside applications to meet their needs — and they’re not telling their employers.
“People feel like they don’t want IT to know because the second they find out, they’re going to shut them down,” Lind said.
Naturally, the use of outside applications, or “shadow IT,” comes with serious security risks, but employees who aren’t using these effectively also stand to become even more technologically overwhelmed.
In addition to constant context switching, employees are contending with more alerts, messages, emails and other communications. And processing all this information takes a toll.
Collaborative work, which HBR defined as time spent on email, instant, phone and video calls, rose 50% or more over the past decade and now consumes 85% or more of most people’s workweeks.
“All these applications serve needs, but the toggling between them or the belief that you need to be constantly available is a killer,” said Robert Cross, Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College. “It’s not the technology itself that’s killing us, it’s cultures of use that develop and persist.”
The “fracturing of work” that comes with having to spend significant time responding to communication leads to employees working longer hours, Cross explained.
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Set Positive Norms
Cross believes that solving this kind of overload requires employees to get better at knowing how to use the tools they’re given and not get used by them.
Employers can help them do so by establishing positive norms for using Slack, email and other collaboration platforms, he said.
Leaders can start by identifying which channels they’re using to communicate most frequently, and then set three positive practices for use on each. This could include limiting the length of emails, sending nighttime emails on a delay or revisiting how many instant messages are sent in a day.
“Nobody has ever been taught how to use email [effectively] or what’s considered a timely response on instant message,” Cross explained, “so it becomes chaos. But if you can set up consistent norms in a way where you’re not telling anyone how to work, you can still get back five to ten percent of peoples’ time almost immediately.”
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Bring Tech Detractors Into the Fray
While it’s generally good for employers to have a validated technology stack, they should be open to letting employees experiment with new tools that might work better for them.
“There's so much nuance in different kinds of functions, and different ways of working in different business processes,” Lind explained, noting that companies may not be able to account for it all.
Employers, and specifically IT, should remove the cultural barriers that keep employees from opening up about their workspace and instead invite them to share so that they can help them get the best use from it.
In many cases, employers may already have tools in their technology ecosystem that meet the same needs employees are using outside apps for, and with easy access and the right instruction, they’re more willing to switch over, Lind said. On the other hand, employees may actually stumble upon more effective tools than what the organization currently offers.
“Part of the reason that it's valuable to let people explore and experiment is that it actually helps you understand, as a tech team, how people are really using these technologies, and maybe there’s value in investing in it.”
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Find Your Digital Natives and High Performers
To help employees achieve a more effective, less overwhelming digital workplace, companies should also look for those who have already done so and leverage those individuals.
Cross noted that the people with the most effective digital work habits aren’t necessarily the people using collaboration platforms the most, but those who manage their interactions most efficiently. Organizations should identify these individuals and make a conscious effort to make them a part of others’ networks.
“The knee-jerk reaction is just to meet a lot of people and let this network form serendipitously,” Cross said. “There’s an opportunity to push the needle on that front.”
Lind agreed that employees who use technology the most effectively can be an asset to the organization.
“Those digital natives in your organizations are the ones who know what systems that people should use,” he said. “Get them to be advocates for you and invite them in to help you.”
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About the Author
Nidhi Madhavan is a research editor at Simpler Media Group, where she creates data-driven content and research for SMG and their clients. Nidhi received her B.A. in Journalism from Loyola University Chicago.