The impact of technology on productivity

The impact of technology on productivity

The inexorable advance of technological progress. Think smartphones, easily portable laptops and tablets which let you work anywhere. Working on projects in real time with colleagues connecting remotely from the other end of the planet. Surely with such advances and conveniences we must be entering one of the most productive eras in history? Well that really depends on how we define productivity. Consider for instance, that collectively as a species we sink 1 billion hours into watching YouTube videos every day. In fact the average mobile viewing session lasts more than 40 minutes.

It’s often been pointed out that productivity had been on a downward spiral since 2007, coincidentally the same year that the first iPhone came out. However, blaming solely the iPhone for this downturn would be a classic mistaken application of correlation/causation and ignoring other factors like the recession.

So which is it, is technology a productive stimulus or a distraction? Well it’s a bit of both. Email for example, helps you liaise and communicate with your colleagues. However, as anyone who has ever got stuck in a never ending email chain about planning a meeting to plan a meeting can tell you, emails can also be an unwelcome distraction. Conversely, applications can help you get organised and ultimately work more effectively – but you could equally start with a dozen problems, and after hours of work still end up with a dozen problems, but now in a spreadsheet.

The other issue is how we measure productivity, it’s one thing to measure easily quantifiable terms like manufacturing and farming output, but how do you quantify the ever growing communications or tech industries? Is the number of happy customers an accurate vector? Or would the total number of new App Store applications be a better unit of measure? With the way the workplace is evolving, traditional working models are also changing. The long 50 hour working weeks of yesteryear are being replaced by models which emphasise shorter working hours, but more productive hours. In that sense, less is more.

Ultimately, technology has changed the workplace. That is a fait accompli, whether it’s made the workplace more productive is still up for debate, but it has the undoubted potential to both seriously increase or dramatically hinder our productivity. To paraphrase a more famous quote, technology is what you make it. But as technology continues to advance, will the emphasis continue to stay on pure productivity, or will spotlight switch from working harder to working smarter?