Summary. Research shows companies are rolling out new technologies faster than employees can learn to use them. The cognitive costs of switching between tools are high. To reduce this problem, companies should design their tech stack as a single product, conduct A/B testing using employees, and design tools for employees with a wide range of tech literacy
The onslaught of new challenges brought on by the pandemic has led businesses to take what McKinsey calls a “quantum leap” in digitization. In a survey published in October 2020, the consulting firm found that companies had adopted as much new technology over the previous several months as they had over several years prior. In fact, “the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years.”
There’s no doubt that taking on new technologies has helped many businesses stay afloat, and in some cases even thrive, as employees worked from home, supply chains revolutionized, and consumer habits shifted. But the slew of new tools can also create havoc for workers.
A study by Cornell University and Qatalog finds that “technology has run amok in the digital office” and workers are “reeling.” More than four-in-ten (43%) said they’re spending too much time switching among different tools to get their jobs done, which “promotes context switching and causes a drag on our creativity.” On an average day, workers are spending an hour searching through different tools for the information they need.
I see these problems in my work helping sales teams at a wide range of companies. Staffers sometimes have to take dozens of steps before simply reaching out to a prospect. This can mean searching for information (say, a prospect’s background or area of focus) in one app in order to copy information into another app. Only after a series of tools are used can the sales rep finally send that first cold email. By that point they have little time, energy and focus to develop a creative pitch. They end up sending more copy-and-pasted, impersonal messages, which end up in “spam jail.”
When I talk with companies about solving this problem, I offer three pieces of advice:
Design the tech stack like a single product
While individual pieces of software may seem to offer big benefits, organizations too often consider them in a vacuum, without much thought to how each new tool would fit into an already tech-heavy workflow. Instead, they should think of their tech stack as being similar to one app — not a phone full of apps.
When companies start to look at each new tool against the backdrop of all the other technologies employees must learn and use, they begin to realize that they’re breaking a cardinal rule of technology design: Don’t add too many steps for the end user. It’s a lesson numerous startup founders have learned the hard way. As the New York Times reported, “when a company fails, excessive friction is often cited as the reason.”
Any new element introduced to the stack should work smoothly and, ideally, automatically, with all the other tools, requiring little to no additional effort by the user. It should simplify the process, shrinking the time it takes for an employee to complete any task. If it adds time, be sure to calculate that as part of the “cost” of the technology — and reconsider whether it’s worth it.
Conduct A/B testing
Before deciding to roll out a new digital tool to the entire staff, some businesses have employees try it out to learn its functions. This often involves spending time using just this piece of software in a simulated environment. Employees are asked for initial impressions as to whether or not it may be helpful.
Not many organizations have a large group of employees actually use the software in their daily work to test it out. And even fewer track the differences between employees who do and do not use the new technology in their workflow. As author Jacob Morgan explains in The Employee Experience Advantage, “Although organizations oftentimes do A/B testing for customer-facing initiatives, this type of approach is rarely done inside of organizations.”
Just as A/B testing is used to improve the CX (customer experience) for people who may access a company’s website or app, companies should use it to improve their own EX (employee experience) as well.
Build for average literacy
In many organizations, employees have a wide range of digital literacy. While businesses are investing in training programs to help increase digital skill levels, there are still many workers who find new technologies confusing and intimidating.
Since the people who oversee the tech stack are generally tech savvy, it’s important that they avoid using themselves as a barometer of how easy a new tool is to use. When considering a tool, ask the company that creates it what digital skill level it requires. Read reviews that speak to this issue, and ask contacts at other companies that use the technology in their workflow. Also, be sure your A/B testing includes people with a range of skill levels. Ultimately, anything you adopt should be easy to use for as many of your employees as possible. (Personally, when even considering recommending any new tool, I use my mom as a benchmark. If I don’t think she could make it work well, I don’t even spend time considering it.)
The pace of digitization inside businesses shows no sign of slowing down in the coming years. Experts interviewed by Pew Research predict the “new normal” in 2025 will be even more tech-driven than it is now. It’s up to businesses to make sure that all this new technology speeds up operations rather than inundating workers with more tasks than ever.