The Future of Work Is Not a Treadmill Desk

by Taher Behbehani | 12/16/15

The “Future of Work” is garnering significant attention – and that’s not always a good thing. When too many people become enamored with the future version of something, it means the present version is not working very well. Today’s scattershot approach to improving workforce productivity has stretched from new mobile applications and devices to treadmill desks, open office designs and even a recent Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute study suggesting that playing nature sounds in the office can boost worker mood and cognitive abilities. While the rush of a waterfall may be soothing, tying it to improved workforce productivity is another matter.

A 2014 Harris Poll survey of employees and hiring managers identified mobile device usage, chatty colleagues, Internet surfing, email, social media and unplanned meetings as the top productivity killers. Given these results, it is not surprising that office workers are interrupted by themselves or others every three minutes, and that once distracted, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on track, according to research by UC Irvine Professor of Informatics Gloria Mark.

In an effort to curtail productivity killers, employers have run through the expected checklist of blocking certain Internet sites, monitoring email usage, encouraging telecommuting and trying to limit meetings. That approach is akin to plugging a 10-foot wide hole with your thumb. Employees are not going to stop relying on smartphones and tablets, emailing regularly or having multiple meetings a day. In fact, all of these things are core to a future of work that reduces distractions and increases productivity.

The future of work requires a fly-by-wire system

Inside an airline cockpit, there is a mind-numbing checklist of to-do items a pilot must account for from pre-flight to landing. The consequences of overlooking the most critical tasks (fuel allocation, weather check, logbooks, etc.) can be catastrophic, and yet the pilot is still responsible for dozens of other items – all while remembering to hop on the intercom to tell passengers to have a nice day.

Thankfully, this pilot burden is lessened by the fly-by-wire system, introduced to shift many of these manual tasks to an automated, computer-regulated system for controlling the flight of the aircraft. As a result, pilots can narrow their focus to the small handful of critical actions that truly matter. Workforce productivity and workflow efficiency are sputtering today because we lack the equivalent of a fly-by-wire system for business communications.

Technology vendors are making headway with elements of a fly-by-wire system to, for example, reduce distracted driving, and there is no reason that the same principles of sensor-based context (driving, passenger, at desk) to prioritize communications can’t be more broadly applied to reduce distracted working. The question is, how do we get to a fly-by-wire system for business communications?

A centralized user experience

Multitasking is one of the most enduring employee mind tricks. Individuals think they are getting more done, but recent studies estimate that productivity plummets 40 percent when attempting to multi-task. As Peter Bregman wrote in 2010, “We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.”

The future of work requires a centralized user experience intuitive enough for employees to shift from toggling multiple applications to a single interface that presents the employee with the optimal application at the right time. By doing so, employees are less prone to multi-task and can more easily focus on what is important.

Extensions to business apps

Every enterprise has a different set of business applications that they use to manage workflows, be it Salesforce.com, Gmail, Dropbox or Slack. Integrating these business applications with communication tools can provide employees with powerful contextual information most relevant to them at any given point in time. For example, a salesperson can be fed a “prospect name” from Salesforce.com, recent company announcements for that prospect from Twitter and LinkedIn information on the prospect.

Analytics and smart algorithms

Building analytics and smart algorithms across communications and collaboration services unlocks a range of productivity benefits for employees. Smart systems can apply rules based on reporting structures, personal relationships (e.g., family members), ongoing projects, and other data to determine what should get an employee’s attention at any given point in time.

The future of work is not about inundating workers with more communications distractions; it’s about giving employees more time. Time to be productive, time to be efficient, and time to enjoy not working at all. 

Taher Behbehani is CMO at BroadSoft. Behbehani has served in a diverse range of operational and marketing leadership positions that cut across M&A and business development, product management, business transformation and digital marketing, including as VP & GM OPEN, Mobile & Digital Payments and Commerce at American Express, and Head of Enterprise Software and Solutions at BlackBerry.