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What are the emerging threats to productivity in the new normal?

Alex Arundale, Chief People Officer - Advanced

The events of the past eighteen months have led to a seismic shift in the business landscape that few could have predicted at the beginning of the pandemic. Economies around the world have been so heavily disrupted that comparisons have been drawn between the financial crisis of 2008, and even the Great Depression of the 1930s in the US. Those businesses that have been able to stay operational have done so through rapid digital transformation, cloud migration and remote working. In a 2020 paper, McKinsey referred to this rapid pace of digital change as The Quickening, with businesses of all shapes and sizes cramming a decade’s worth of digital innovation into the space of 90 days.

Yet, despite their best efforts in facilitating remote work, many businesses and their employees have struggled when it comes to productivity; not because of laziness or geography, but due to something that could easily be referred to as a ‘notification overload’. It’s a problem plaguing staff in all industries, as they’re forced to engage with ‘always-on’ technology in an environment where they’re expected to be constantly available or risk being accused of not working. Given that remote working – or at least hybrid working – is here to stay for the long-term, this is something businesses need to start thinking about if they are to maintain a happy and productive workforce in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’.

Flexible working is here to stay
Figures released in April 2021, when the vaccine rollout was well underway in the UK, revealed that 73% of employees wanted to retain the option to work from home, and more than a third (66%) of business leaders were planning on downgrading or redesigning their office space to accommodate remote-hybrid working. After all, let’s not forget that the benefits to remote working are in fact mutual. Employees are afforded more free time, can avoid commutes and reduce their expenses; employers can downgrade their commercial space and reduce fixed costs and overheads. It’s even better for the environment. During the first lockdown in the UK, there was a staggering 42% decrease in surface-level nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across the entire country.

However, the fruit from these gains can only really be capitalised on if businesses address the problem of productivity and how to better support and manage their staff in these uncertain times.

A new culture of uncertainty
Nothing underscores the uncertainty businesses have had to deal with better than the so-called ‘pingdemic’. July 19th, dubbed ‘Freedom Day, was the day when the last of the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in the UK and things were supposed to get back to some semblance of normality. According to the Financial Times, more than 600,000 people were told to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace app in the first week, presenting employers who’d planned a return to the office with yet another difficult obstacle to overcome. With hybrid working billed as the ‘The Next Great Disruption’, are businesses and their employees truly prepared to make the shift to remote, flexible working more permanently? Or are staff doomed to a barrage of Slack notifications, Zoom calls, inbox pings, WhatsApp groups, phone calls and more?

Notification overload
A recent survey titled 2021 Workforce Trends Survey was carried out by Advanced, one of the UK’s largest business software and service providers. It revealed that nearly 70% of employees felt that too many distractions and notifications were holding them back from performing their role effectively. Alarmingly, more than half (54%) were frequently expected to be available outside of their normal working hours when working from home; something that wasn’t expected of them when working at the office. Either this points to a lack of trust from employers and managers, or more likely, a lack of refined processes in place for effective remote working and project management. More than 1 in 5 employees (22%) said they receive so many alerts and notifications that their working days are never fully spent on doing actual work, which likely contributes to the emerging out-of-hours, always-on problem.

For decades technology has been a great facilitator of productivity. Could we now be approaching a point of ‘technology saturation’ which is having the reverse effect and actually slowing employees down? It’s a question that all business leaders should be asking themselves as we move into the autumn and continue to emerge from the pandemic.

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