How Work Became a Mess

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The Productivity Paradox

Around the world, people are realizing their working lives have become exhausting and unproductive.


We wake up, write emails, sit in meetings, and switch between a dozen or more apps all day, but somehow it never feels like the work is getting done.

0.1

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Over the last two decades, we’ve taken huge technological strides that should have made work easier. Computing power has grown exponentially as microchips have become more advanced. Our laptops are more powerful than the NASA computers that put people on the moon. 1

The world’s data is expanding, transforming our personal and work lives. As the price of storage plummets, the amount of data we store and share skyrockets.2

And as our data demands have increased, so have the delivery mechanisms. Broadband speeds became seven times faster in less than 10 years.3

Few technologies have spread as quickly as the smartphone, which lets us work anywhere, anytime. Just a dozen years after their introduction, many developed economies are approaching 80% smartphone penetration. 4

Accelerating technologies were supposed to make us more productive — but the reality is quite different.5 Since 2009, productivity growth has almost flattened—a stark contrast to the exponential advances in technology and the tools we work with.

With the benefit of powerful technology at work, you’d expect a surge in productivity. It hasn’t happened. Not only has productivity growth failed to accelerate, it’s actually fallen below the steady growth rate it had before the latest technology boom.

What happened?

2.0.0

In 2000, computers were simple task-oriented devices. We had few software applications and collaborated within relatively small personal networks.

As computers and mobile devices evolved, so did the application landscape. Suddenly, there was an app for everything—and our devices grew cluttered and noisy.

Since each app is a new interface we need to pay attention to, over time our work lives have gotten increasingly chaotic. Our devices ding with unread messages and flash with red notifications.

Every tool or service we add creates a new network of collaborators and notifications, adding fresh complexities and interdependencies.

The average executive has gone from sending and receiving about 1,000 communications per year to over 30,000 today, or one every four minutes.6

​​The average number of apps used per business increased by 43% in the last four years alone. 7

Work is spread across a growing number of isolated channels, making us disorganized and overwhelmed.

Applications, messages, and people all demand attention, pulling our minds in a hundred directions at once and making it impossible to focus on what’s important.

3.0

In reality, we’ve traded a relatively focused, 8-hour workday for a never-ending blitz of distractions and interruptions.

Our attention has become fractured into bite-sized chunks of work that feel productive but accomplish little. With workdays spent bouncing between apps, little of our time is spent on focused work.

As it’s become more difficult to get the important things done, we’ve begun working more during nights and weekends to catch up.

Our devices and the cloud provide a near-constant link to our work, so it follows us everywhere. Even when we leave work, we’re still connected. The new reality is a 24-hour workday and burnout epidemic.

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Bibliography

  1. Total transistors per microprocessor over time. Data collected by computational scientist Karl Rupp.
  2. Total amount of data in the datasphere. Based on a joint study by Seagate and IDC.
  3. Median broadband speed in the US per year. Data collected yearly by the FCC.
  4. Smartphone penetration data from Pew Research.
  5. Productivity data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  6. Data from Okta’s Business @ Work report.
  7. Based on a Bain & Company study, reported by the Harvard Business Review.
  8. Based on a report from RingCentral.
  9. From the 2018 Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey.