Technology in the Workplace: How it Can Turn Real Work Into Fake Work

By Brent D. Peterson and Gaylan W. Nielson

Everything in our modern business and organizational environment has the potential for being Fake Work. Great projects, wonderful work, hard work, focused work can turn from Real Work to Fake Work when it isn’t strategically linked.

When an organization shifts emphasis, they must carefully articulate those changes or they will foster Fake Work up and down the organization. We find that leaders make three key mistakes, that we refer to as A.C.T., to ensure that strategy is implemented at the work level:

  1. Articulation: Simply, leaders don’t write clear, well-designed strategic plans that are easy to read and understand immediately—and have too little input from managers and employees. They either don’t exist or often are too long or too short—making it hard to understand what is not said or dig out what is important when it’s too long and complex.
  2. Communication: Communication is hard and hard to get right, so it requires attention, effort, consistency, and variation. Communication has not occurred until employees, at all levels, have heard and understand the messages.
  3. Translation: Nothing turns to Real Work until all employees understand strategy in terms of their daily tasks. Therefore, they need to work with their teams to align and prioritize tasks that drive the organizational strategies.

Technology isn’t connected to Real Work

In the modern work environment, technology, like all the tools used for organizational success, can serve the best interests of the organization or can draw off critical focus. While the discussion is complex and difficult, the following five concepts are clear examples, that we hear about all the time, that are creating Fake Work:

1. Technology as distraction

One of the most common things we hear from the teams we are working to align is that they need to have focus conversations about strategy because their work environments are so distracting. It’s too easy to get off track. Research shows that employees are distracted every seven minutes. That research predates the modern technology revolution.

Now, the workplace is full of laptop computers, tablets, handheld devices, and employees are linked into Facebook and other social networking. Add surfing and an endless array of content along with games, and it is very easy for people to get distracted. It’s hard to know where work begins and ends sometimes, but it isn’t hard to see and hear about the distractions that were not common even 10 years ago.

While we all know people who use their technological devices to communicate more, keep track of critical information, and get work done; tons of that is just not productive.

2. Technology as delusion

Our research shows that 50 percent of all work is Fake Work. Early on, we were concerned that we’d get serious pushback with those numbers because they seemed so high. Not any more. The most common answer we hear now is: “At least.”

All this new technology sets up a false reality. Workers talk about long, hard, 14-hour days as a kind of accomplishment, but their days are often filled with distractions and Fake Work. If much of the Fake Work could be eliminated, days would be better focused and productivity would soar. Long days make people less able to concentrate and solve problems. In the end, it’s hard on morale and employees feel abused after long, hard days.

3. Technology as a drug

Study after study show alarming levels of Facebooking, texting, and other networking in children. These behaviors is drifting into workplaces with new, younger workers and catching on with older ones. These activities are distracting and they delude people about long work days, but they are also addictive.

We have heard that word — addictive — from dozens of people. We all know people who will not allow you to pull their attention away from their phones, handhelds, or computers. This is a concerning problem that will get worse.

4. Technology distortion of real time

Technology has been shown to make organizations more productive in thousands of ways, and that technology is inseparable from an effective work environment.

However, many tasks that used to have very focused attention, serious deadlines, and clear directives have become more abstract and ambiguous. Therefore, tasks expand, deadlines wobble, and productivity is seriously affected because the technology gives too many employees a sense that tasks can, ultimately, be done quickly, so they can easily get distracted and still make up the time.

The bigger problem may be that they are often right. Surfing the web may provide information that used to take days to find. The web may provide tools that used to have to be created from scratch.

Unfortunately, this distortion of real time also affects Real Work. Often workplaces aren’t significantly more productive than they were 25 years ago. The following comes from our book, Fake “Work”:

Productivity is difficult to measure, and official statistics measure it merely as the Gross Domestic Product adjusted for inflation divided by the total number of hours worked. But if this measure means anything at all, an average worker today needs to work a mere 11 hours per week to produce as much as one working 40 hours per week in 1950. (The data here is from the U.S., but productivity increases in Europe and Japan have been of the same magnitude.) The conclusion is inescapable: a worker should be able to earn the same standard of living as a 1950 worker in only 11 hours per week.” See this from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many other conclusions can be drawn from these statistics, but the easiest is to suggest that a worker today should produce four times more than they did in 1950 in a full week’s work, but in all those 12-hour days, it should be five times greater. We all know that it is not. Few workplaces are getting that much more from their people.

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Why? Don’t ignore the distractions, the delusions, and the addictions to the technologies that are drawing off much of the concentrated effort of employees.

5. Technology diverts us from real communication

If you are a leader today, one of the biggest challenges you face is getting people’s attention so that communication really occurs. And it works both ways because too many leaders, at all levels, are being pulled away from real communication.

While we use our technology to improve communication and keeping in touch as we travel all over the world—and wouldn’t be without it, we know the limitations of those same technologies.

First of all, way too much is being done via email, texting, phone messages, conferences, etc. Research will tell us that about 70 percent of communication is non-verbal. A study out of Grenoble, France showed:

…Communication is an interactive, complex act between people which involves linguistics, emotions, expressions, and more generally psychological, cognitive, and social dimensions. This is why face-to-face communication is so important because it involves much more than speaking words, we must integrate information not only from the speaker but also from the entire physical environment surrounding us. As partners involved in face-to-face communication we must feel the mood and energy of the environment and the speaker. We actually see speech before we hear it: in the face, lips, tongue, body position and, gestures of the speaker. Once speech is occurring in communication, not only do we hear the words being spoken, but more importantly we hear the speakers tone of voice, intonation, and even the rhythm at which they are speaking…”

Use your technology to research this topic because thousands of pieces of data and hundreds of studies show this critical factor.

E-mail is very often used for complicated conversations and they create more problems than they ever solve. I was debating some issues with a friend via e-mail, and I found that every e-mail got more complicated, convoluted. I realized that because he couldn’t hear my tone, see my expressions, and hear the nuances in my voice, he was misunderstanding almost everything. Finally, we had lunch and found that our differences had been exaggerated by the medium we chose to communicate through.

When I tell that story, I hear dozens of comments about how bosses misunderstood an e-mail, how workers overreacted, how a battle got worse.

Simply, e-mail is not the right medium for much of that communication. Hence, conference calls, which are often remarkably efficient, can be very ineffective for some discussions and some decisions. That will certainly be true for Facebook, for texts, for phone messages, or even phone calls one-on-one.

Clearly, serious questions are being asked about the effectiveness of the interpersonal skills of the technology-raised and savvy new employees. We must be careful not to generalize, but clearly the questions are raising some serious concerns about how communication is being negatively affected by the preponderance of technology in the workplace.

Copyright 2010, The Work Itself Group. All rights reserved.

Brent D. Peterson, Ph.D, is the co-founder and chair of The Work Itself Group, Inc., which helps organizations align strategy with work. He is the co-author of FAKE WORK along with Gaylan W. Nielson, M.A., the co-founder and CEO of The Work Itself Group, Inc.