05 May 2017 16:30 IST

Robots and the distracted worker

Will AI help boost productivity in office and bring succour to the overwhelmed employee?

It’s quite ironical that at a time when there is plenty of technology to ease our work, productivity growth has all but stalled. All over the world, if you look at indicators, such as GDP growth and wage growth, productivity levels seem to have really dipped, nowhere more so than in developed nations like the US.

While a lot of factors are at play — shortage of demand and weak investments, amongst others — even labour productivity (value added per hour worked) seems to have slowed down, which is surprising many.

Surprising slowdown

After all, the Fourth Industrial Revolution — digital era powered by the smartphone — should have logically resulted in as much productivity gains as the previous three, that were ushered in by powerlooms, steam engines, communication (telegraph) and banking systems.

Instead, since 2011, output per hour has been growing at barely half per cent annually in the US and G7 nations, compared with 2 per cent growth earlier. Although measurement of productivity is fairly contentious, anecdotal evidence suggests that even a developing nation like India has been suffering from somewhat sluggish growth when it comes to worker productivity.

So much so that questions are now being asked about whether enterprise technologies being adopted are really as transformational as they are thought to be. Many even believe that productivity may be hit because of the technologies.

The distractions

At the recent SHRM HR tech conference in Hyderabad, Josh Bersin, founder and principal at Bersin by Deloitte, described how employees today are overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of messages and technologies at work. “There are no barriers between work and life today,” Bersin said, pointing out how between Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook, Gmail, LinkedIn and Outlook, people can be reached any time, anywhere. Believe it or not, world over people look at their phones eight billion times a day and have very short attention spans, according to Microsoft research.

Several studies have shown how email overload (most people spend 25 per cent of their day dealing with mails) is causing huge stress. But there are other factors distracting employees at work too.

Open offices that were architected to enhance collaboration among employees are now being blamed for affecting productivity due to the noise and distractions. The culture of meetings that take up far too much employee time is another factor.

Then there are also ecosystem and infrastructure issues — longer commutes due to traffic snarls, poor network connectivity delaying virtual meetings, and so on. Professor Ramakrishna Velamuri, Professor of Entrepreneurship at CEIBS, Shanghai, believes that in India, productivity loss is also attributable as much to antiquated mindsets as it is to poor quality infrastructure. “How often do you see senior managers hovering around the CEOs office to meet him?” he asks.

So where does that leave us? Should we abandon the open office plans? Should we relook technology, and ban emails over the weekend (France just did it after hours with its ‘right to disconnect’ law)? We definitely should get over our hierarchical mindsets.

Waiting for Ubiquitech

Over the course of the last few years, companies have experimented with a host of things to solve this productivity puzzle. Some, like HUL, look at the Open Office imperative in philosophical terms, giving top managements cabins and those who need distraction free environments, the use of soundproof quiet rooms.

Several others have tried using the ROWE (results only work environment) HR strategy, allowing employees flexible schedules and control of their time. Many have cracked down on meetings, experimenting with standing meetings, putting hard stops whether the agenda gets done or not.

Even as these solutions are being implemented, those engaged in researching the ‘future of work’ believe that the productivity stagnation is only the lag before the introduction of new technologies takes effect. As McKinsey points out in a report, it could well be the Solow Paradox of the 1980s at work again, where a full impact of a new technology is only realised a few years later.

This view is also reflected in a new book, What To Do When Machines Do Everything, which looks at the invasion of a cocktail of new technologies — artificial intelligence, algorithms, bots, big data — into the workplace and how organisations are gearing up for an era of automation and enhancement. According to the authors of the book (Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring who are all with Cognizant), when Ubiquitech — technology embedded into everything — happens and when Internet of Things comes to life, transformation will happen.

The new machines, they believe, will help move the companies and economies from stall to boom. Job losses will be there, of course, but they believe millions of new higher skilled jobs will be created in place. And the long awaited productivity growth will happen.

But — and there is always a rider — it can happen only if organisations rewire themselves totally, in terms of business models, people processes, strategy, execution and implementation of technology. The question is: how many will be able to do it rapidly?