What's the productivity impact of digital teamwork? The statistics can't tell us

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 5, 2021
Is remote work and digital teamwork making us more or less productive? Unfortunately, the pandemic has broken the productivity statistics, so no one can say for sure.

Back view of female employee on video call with coworkers on laptop at home © fizkes - Shutterstock
(© fizkes - Shutterstock)

Digital teamwork tools have evolved rapidly over the past year as much of the world switched to distributed working. There's a lot more evolution still to come as vendors continue to release new capabilities. Just last week, Cisco promised new analytics for Webex users, while Slack's CEO the week before was talking up plans to add audio chats and video clips. But despite all this innovation, it may still be a long time before we can truly establish whether it's really helping us become more productive at work. The pandemic has made it all but impossible for statisticians to measure productivity in any meaningful way.

Amidst the disruption of the pandemic, the adjustment to working from home as meant many of us have had to learn new routines. According to research carried out for digital teamwork vendor Asana, during this time knowledge workers around the world have been working an extra two hours a day. What are they doing in that extra time? Has working from home made them less efficient and therefore it takes longer to get things done? Or is it because not having to commute to work or travel to meetings means they can actually get more done in the day? Maybe it's a mix of both, but we can only guess from our own anecdotal experience. There's no way of objectively measuring the overall impact as statistics can't give us an authoritative answer at the moment. Economist Vicky Pryce, former Joint Head of the UK Government Economics Service, explains why that's the case:

Right now, unfortunately, measuring productivity is very difficult. People doing an extra two hours a day ... are they actually achieving something in terms of the output at the end of the day?

For the economy as a whole, it has been doubly difficult. You can see that in the quarterly data, which is really quite extraordinary because of course, we have so many people on furlough.

Throughout 2020, UK measurements of productivity per worker slumped in every quarter — 3.3% down in Q1, a massive 20.5% fall in Q2, a further 7.9% in Q3 and 6.3% in Q4. But a large part of this is due to the government statistics counting those on furlough as workers, even though by definition they haven't actually been working.

Why the statistics can't help us

The figures are not so bad if we look at output per hour, which restricts the sample to those who actually were able to work. But even here we need to be on our guard, warns Pryce. With many industries disrupted, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) has sometimes had trouble getting hold of the right people to report the raw data. And with shutdowns across whole swathes of service industry — which have historically reported much lower productivity levels than industries such as manufacturing and construction that have stayed open — the results may be skewed simply because it's been a different mix of workers putting their hours in.

Output per hour in Q1 of 2020 saw a fall of 0.1% in the UK figures, followed by a drop of 1% in Q2. There was a rise of 4% in Q3, and finally a dip of 1.1% in Q4, leaving the year more or less where it started. But extrapolating anything meaningful from these figures is a mug's game. Pryce again:

Does that tell you anything about where we might end up in the future? No. What it will be all determined by is the skills that are used, the investment that is done, and how many people eventually actually go back to doing proper work.

What makes this even more difficult to gauge is the long-established principle of the productivity paradox in IT. This was first mooted by economist Robert Solow in the late 1980s, who observed that:

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.

The paradox arises because investment in digital technology doesn't produce an immediate boost to productivity. Organizations initially take time to develop the necessary skills and processes to use it effectively. Even then, automating existing processes delivers only limited improvements. The full benefit comes when the technology begins to enable more novel ways of working. Pryce explains:

Where the improvement in productivity happens from technology is when you start using it properly. Usually, there is a gap between using it, and using it properly ...

The next one is how you can use it creatively ... that's when the real next step up in productivity takes place.

I'm just optimistic that [after the pandemic] we will then move to that as the next phase and we won't forget it by going back to the old way of doing things.

Improving productivity in the service sector

The hope is that the adjustment to more digital working as a result of being locked out of offices has allowed workers to get used to the digital tools and thus get past that initial productivity gap. Knowledge workers in most industries — particularly the service sectors — have been forced to use digital tools more extensively to make progress with their work and have had to figure out the best way to make use of them. If people continue those new habits even after offices start to open back up, there could be a lasting productivity gain. Pryce concludes:

What's been happening, certainly during this pandemic, is that quite a lot of that technology that until now was probably used by more advanced areas is now filtering through to everyday business in the service sector too. So the expectation is that we might find that productivity boost taking place.

Pryce was speaking during a roundtable hosted by Asana, which also included Teak Tse from Asana customer and leading broadcaster Sky. As Executive Creative Director of Design Systems & Operations at Sky, Tse has found the experience of remote and asynchronous working has "been great for design, especially because we could collaborate a lot more easily." Instead of being tied to office hours, people have time-shifted their work to times of the day when they could be more productive, often fitting it around family duties such as homeschooling and parenting. He has this takeaway:

We've proven that businesses can trust their employees to get on and do the work.

My take

My stance on digital teamwork is that there are huge efficiencies possible once the tools are properly deployed and used. Vendors such as Asana are marketing their wares on the basis that's the case — Simon O'Kane, Asana's EMEA General Manager closed the roundtable by citing a marketing agency based in Germany that has recently moved to a four-day working week on the basis of the productivity gains achieved using digital tools.

Others will disagree. For every business that's found digital teamwork has helped their people become more productive over the past year, there are many others that remain frustrated with the time squandered on Zoom calls, the duplicated effort of poor team co-ordination and the broken processes that keep their people tied up in perpetual fire-fighting.

The argument as to who's right will continue to rage in the absence of objective evidence. Unfortunately, as Pryce has explained, the disruption of the pandemic has rendered all our existing measures temporarily obsolete. It seems as though it'll be several years before there's any real clarity as to the true impact of moving to distibuted, connected teamwork and the best tools and approaches to make it work well. In the meantime, buyers and business leaders who want to get ahead will have to trust their instincts as to what works.

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