Issue 25: The perfect workflow doesn't exist... does it exist?

September 27, 2019

This week, we'll analyze workplace productivity and ask ourselves: In an age of increased connectedness, is workplace technology ((such as Slack, Asana and other task management and communication tools), really making us, more productive, and more effective at our jobs? Is there such a thing as a perfect workflow?

We'll also look at what the top 20 business transformations of the last decade how to teach businesses overall, learn the power of a clear leadership narrative, and consider whether Google Chrome is in danger of going the way of Windows. Finally, we'll look back at 19th century workflows.


"Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." - Ben Franklin

Today, as workplaces continue to become more digital, distributed, and remote, there are a seemingly endless number of tools intended to help us communicate and accomplish more - to be better, faster, stronger. As we consider the future of work, we wonder: How do the major players help - or hinder - our productivity? How is technology defining what is a perfect workflow?

It's hard to imagine work before email, as it has undeniably transformed how we live and work. However, the sheer volume of virtual ink that's spilled (who among us hasn't flirted with inbox zero as a goal?) indicates that most, if not all of us, still haven't figured out how best to corral our inboxes.

Cue, then, the emergence of email management subscriptions like Tempo and Superhuman. Although they exist at opposite ends of the price spectrum (Tempo is currently available in a free beta, whereas Superhuman is $30/month), they're both specifically tailored to making email nebulously "better" or "more deliberate."

Many are concerned that the constant pings and pop-ups from emails are detrimental to their daily work flow. Should you be among those who feel this way, Sarah Peck, a New York-based author, startup advisor and founder and executive director of Startup Pregnant, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across work and family, suggests six tips for setting boundaries around email.

We've already written about the Slacklash (back in the 13th edition), but no discussion of workplace efficiency tools can be complete without considering Slack's impact. Slack, along with Google's Hangouts and Meet products, Microsoft's ubiquitous Office offerings, and Facebook's Workplace, form a $3.5 billion global "team collaborative applications market" — and this market is projected to grow almost 70% in the next three years.

While these services are needed to help keep companies running smoothly, especially in remote and distributed team settings and knowledge work becomes increasingly commonplace, they can have significant downsides.

Most immediately, constant low-friction communication through workplace chat tools can be a major time suck. Time Is Ltd., a productivity-analytics company that taps into workplace programs, like Slack to give companies recommendations on how to be more productive, reports that the average employee at a large company sends over 200 Slack messages per week. Beyond that, power users who send over 1,000 messages a day are "not an exception." Consequently, the amount of time that people spend in communication apps has gone up significantly in the past few years:

Source: Recode

Source: Recode

This leads productivity blogger Darius Foroux to observe:

Source: Recode

Source: Recode

In response to these concerns, people suggest a variety of solutions. Matt Galligan, co-founder and CEO of The Picks & Shovels Co. suggests using threads, rather than replies to the full channel, as a way to reduce noise on Slack. Sarah Lacy, longtime tech journalist and founder and CEO of Chairman Mom, argues that it's up to management to model appropriate use of technology tools alongside reasonable working hours.


In addition to these technologies, there are also many schools of thought on how we can best work together in the modern workplace. Unsurprisingly, there are wide chasms between how workers of different generations approach collaboration. Younger workers are more likely to use videoconferencing and chat tools — and to use a greater variety of these tools. Their greater comfort with these technologies come to younger workers naturally, as they grew up on them. In addition, younger workers may be employed by more agile companies that rely upon and adopt these tools more than established corporations.  

That might seem obvious, but the numbers are staggering:

  • 86% of employees ages 25-34 use videoconferencing tools, compared to only 46% of employees ages 55+

  • 92% of employees ages 18-24 and 25-34 use chat tools, only 51% of employees ages 55+ use those tools.

Younger generations also use more collaboration tools overall, with 60% of workers ages 18-44 using three or more tools on a daily basis for collaboration with colleagues. Interestingly, workers recognize this collaboration tool overload as detrimental to their workflows: 60% of employees ages 18-24 and 63% of employees ages 25-34 feel they waste a lot of time switching between collaboration tools, while only 40% of employees ages 55+ feel the same.

Troublingly for younger workers, it turns out that always-on connectivity can fry problem-solving. Researchers find that as the proliferation of collaboration tools makes interaction cheaper and more abundant, opportunities to think without interaction are becoming more expensive and scarce. Particularly alarmingly, they find that when people trade a rhythm of on-and-off collaboration for always-on connectivity, they coordinate and gather information effectively, but at the cost of producing less innovative, less productive solutions.

In light of this trend, it's perhaps worth thinking about collaboration more broadly. Article Group, a Brooklyn-based creative marketing agency, has written a collaboration guide to serve as a handbook for teams looking to work together efficiently, effectively, and deliberately.

Extended Reading

The Top 20 Business Transformations of the Last Decade
It won't come as a surprise to learn that the companies that have made the most significant progress toward strategic transformation have largely been technology and healthcare companies.

Source: HBR

Source: HBR

These companies — which represent only 3% the companies that researchers looked at — illustrate a common lesson: in an era of relentless change, companies survive and thrive based on their ability to reposition themselves to create a new future and leverage a purpose-driven mission to that end. Compared to this metric, size and performance don't matter much.

The Power of a Clear Leadership Narrative
Douglas A. Ready advises leaders to figure out what, exactly, great leadership means to themselves in order to lead most effectively. In keeping with this week's theme, Ready observes that teams are most effective when they come together as communities that have a unifying sense of purpose and collective ambition. He also observes that even in a digital world, clear and concise communication outweighs digital savvy as the most important leadership trait.

Google Chrome is in danger of becoming Windows — everyone uses it, but no one loves it
In keeping with the theme of workplace tools, consider Google Chrome. Techradar editor Matt Hanson contends that Chrome is in danger of becoming the new Windows — ubiquitous but unloved. He warns that this is a potential threat to Google if a better, less annoyance-ridden competitor comes along. It could supplant Chrome down the line, much as Microsoft saw Android supplant Windows as the most-used operating system in the world.