Digital Communications and Collaboration Tools – Boon or Burden?

John Smythe of Engage for Change presented early findings from the first phase of a significant global research project. Find out what the emerging themes are...

There’s a significant amount of research going on at the moment around ESNs and collaboration tools, and in particular around their impact on employee engagement, and on behaviours, relationships and performance at work. Earlier this month John Smythe of Engage for Change and Bonnie Carlo of Carlo Communications in Australia, presented their early findings from the first phase of their combined global research project. simply were there at the Groucho Club event to find out what the emerging themes are…

“We set out on this mission with no hypothesis” starts John. “We wanted to see what influence big and little tech is having on the very nature of work. On behaviour, on employee engagement, on performance and on well being. We are concerned more with the social outcomes rather than the tech per se. What is clear is that tech is changing radically the nature of work.”

Bonnie expanded on this point: “Perhaps more than any other time in history, we’re living and working amongst an incredibly diverse work force – spanning from the generation that remembers the time before TV existed, to the generation that can’t believe there was a time before Google existed. We want to see if different generations have different views on the impact of tech on their experience of work.”

Change in workforce demographics

It’s estimated that in less than 10 years (2025), 75% of the workforce will be tech native Millennials (2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey). And in the US by 2020 it’s predicted that 46% of workers will be self employed. Alongside this we have seen the architecture of work changing from the high rise city tower blocks, to the science parks and campuses, to home offices. And of course our lives at work and at home are full of tech. Bonnie’s amusing quote rings true: “10 years ago, 24 hours away from work related technology was called ‘Sunday’. Now it’s called a ‘digital detox’.”

Scope of project

The research project has been underway several months already with more than 30 organisations involved in detailed focus groups and in excess of 800 responses to an online survey. This has a good representation of the three working generations as well as covering four continents of Europe, Australasia, India and North America. From the focus groups so far there are a number of big themes that stand out about the impacts of tech at work and these will be the subject of deeper focus throughout the second phase of the project:

  • Challenges of managing multi-generational teams
  • Deferential hierarchies replaced by DIY networks
  • Diffusion of power and influence
  • Extemporised remote working
  • Digitally fluent leadership
  • Digital change and strategy

John told us: “Tech is supposed be a boon for us. Certainly for some it is delivering a more creative and fulfilling work-life; however, many describe being overwhelmed by the tech and talk of a chaotic workplace where tech is a burden rather than a boon.”

Productivity gap

It’s easy to ask what the point of all the new shiny technology really is? We’ve been told it’s about making our working lives more efficient, making it easier to get work done, to collaborate with our colleagues, to allow us and enable us to have the work-life balance we always wanted, yet the reality, borne out in this research so far, is often not the case. This is not the fault of the technology per se. It’s about human behaviour and organisational culture.

One staggering statistic from the session was that in 2016 a whopping $3.4 trillion will be invested in tech yet, since the 1970s, productivity has not risen at all. It takes time of course, but how much time?

Cultural context

Social technology demands a certain type of culture in order to enjoy high adoption levels and to add value to the organisation. Looking at the two extremes of cultural context below, it’s clear that in order for the new technologies to have a chance of adding value, the organisational culture needs to be nearer the right than the left!

With this in mind, the research poses a variety of questions around time spent online, feelings about communication at work, social media use outside work and the benefits it brings, and in the context of work it explores what electronic communication and collaboration people interact with, and what benefits this brings to the individual, the team and the organisation.

Quantitative headlines

  • Most people are online 3-4 hours per day
  • 1 in 4 Millennials online 7+ hours per day
  • 52% Gen X online for 4 hours or less per day
  • 1 in 4 Boomers and Gen X are working from home at least one day per week – more than twice the amount of Millennials
  • All generations are significantly more productive when they work from home.

Work-life balance

Whilst working from home increases productivity, it also causes approx. 1 in 3 people to communicate less with their colleagues and this raises a ‘red flag’ for John and Bonnie: “It makes us question whether engagement in the traditional sense is the price companies will pay for productivity” says Bonnie. The Gen X are most positive about their work-life balance – they like to work from home and feel more productive when they do. This is also the generation most likely to have line management responsibility and a greater degree of control over their working patterns.

But, it is notable that significant proportions of all generations experience both positive and negative effects from digital communications. Generally, people like the flexibility that tech can bring, especially when it helps them be more productive. The flip side is that many struggle with the ‘always on’ side effects, finding little or no escape from the office email.

Impact and Usefulness of tech

When asked specifically about collaboration and networking tech, there was some uncertainty about availability of networking and collaboration platforms, especially amongst the Boomers.

Only one third of people are set up to succeed as users of these technologies – almost half have not had training at all. In terms of impact at work, email remains the dominant channel despite myriad new technologies designed to reduce email burden. A significant proportion of Boomers record no impact from ESNs and collaboration platforms, whilst many Gen X and Millennials feel their impact is negative – largely it seems because the social platforms they use outside of work are so much better. Email also remains the dominant channel in terms of usefulness, with significant proportions of all generations not using ESNs or collaboration tools at all.

The research has so far confirmed that all key workforce behaviours are favouring face to face and email communication over newer social tools with email perhaps even overtaking face to face for things such as feedback, recognition and stakeholder communication.

Success factors

When there’s a clearly articulated purpose, visible and respected sponsorship, sensible protocols, perceived safety of participation, easy access from all devices (particularly mobiles), a clear architecture of channels, confidence-inducing induction and refreshment training, robust governance and visible role models, digital channels are credited with delivering both commercial and cultural performance and great benefits for people. Where these conditions are met people are enthusiastic about tech at work; however, the majority report a different workplace experience.

Where these good tech conditions are not met, people at work are far from enamoured with it. Typically the investment decision will have been framed as a transactional tech purchase and one which may be side stepped by the Boomers and Gen X in the C suite and delegated. The decision may be made by a business unit head or a regional figure. Unlike on the good tech pathway, the focus is on the techy features rather than on delivering the organisation’s strategy and improving commercial and cultural performance. Where technology is introduced without both a commercial and cultural plan, the feedback is overwhelmingly negative and the focus groups revealed senior management – largely Boomers and Gen X – were frequently criticised for failing to role model, creating a generational divide.


Latest Enterprise Social Networking Research at #smilelondon from simply-communicate on Vimeo.

What next?

From the focus groups it is clear that people want there to be a clear purpose and strategy for introducing new technologies and a clear rules of engagement around using digital channels versus more traditional communication channels. It is important to take account of organisational demographics when developing any commercial and cultural plan involving collaboration technology so that functionality and structure support the organisational behaviours required. Initial training and ongoing refreshment training is seen as necessary by all generations to ensure the platform remains useful to the whole organisation alongside good governance. Another point of interest that emerged from the talks was that ‘good tech’ organisations are not afraid to bury technology that fails to deliver the right results and does not drive the right behaviours. Getting rid of technology that is not working well for an organisation was seen by many as being as helpful as introducing new technology – in fact it is the constant adding of technology that confuses and clutters, leading to the frequently voiced sense of ‘chaos’.

“Not getting our knowledgeable and experienced older generations online using these collaboration tools is a wasted opportunity” claimed John, “And the problems we have are here to stay for while yet: the last Boomers will exit the workforce in 13 years time and Gen X in 29 years. It is essential that as communication professionals we learn to cater for different demographics involving future and present generations in a vision of ‘social work’.”

Get involved

In phase 2 of this research project, Engage For Change and Carlo Communications will be looking in more detail at the issues raised in the first phase, and in particular they are interested in: the balance between governance and freedom; what employee engagement means for Millennials; the impact of remote working on creativity and collaboration; what Boomers and Gen X need to love tech; who owns the tech and whether technology stimulates cultural change or culture dictates how tech is used.

If you’d like to learn more about the impact of collaboration technology on behaviour at work get involved in the next phase of research by contacting him directly on