Sunday 11 December 2016

Millennials are not your digital saviours - office culture must change

Madhumita Murgia

Published 10/06/2016 | 10:24

Millennials are in thrall to any bit of technology that will organise their lives.
Millennials are in thrall to any bit of technology that will organise their lives.

On my first day in this office, I was shown my desk, clean except for a phone, a computer and a printed list of passwords to get me started.

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 The passwords let me into my computer and email, where a further list of passwords awaited me.

These would apparently let me access a mysterious set of internal software programs, all with impregnable acronyms that I would eventually be trained to use. I spent a lot of the day (and subsequent weeks) on the phone to Technical Support.

I don't use most of those programs today.

In pretty much every modern office job, you can’t get by without a digital crutch: software, apps, digital documents, smartphones, computers, pretty much anything that connects to the internet. In my workplace, it’s all of the above.

Although I’m comfortable using technology in my personal life – I shop, travel, eat, bank, entertain myself and communicate via apps and gadgets – I find technology at work a stressful prospect.

Apparently, I’m not alone. New research from Dropbox and Ipsos Mori which studied more than 4000 employees globally concluded that 31pc found the experience of using technology in the office stressful.

This is backed up by another new study by Cisco and the Institute of Cultural Capital, surveying more than 3000 British workers of various ages and jobs about how successful digital roll-outs had been at their work. Sadly, it seems, not very.

“Just because millennials are handy with Snapchat filters and emoji doesn’t mean they can figure out a decades-old software or an unnecessarily confusing expenses app”

A third of employees said their business has not integrated technology in a helpful way. 26pc had suggested an app or digital tech to their boss that they thought would benefit the organisation, but nothing came of it. Only 71pc of workers had digital access at work, far lower than the 87pc of Britons using technology at home.

Millennials are particularly frustrated: 36pc of 18-34 year olds are exasperated by technology at work, compared to 25pc of over-55s.

There’s no  doubt about it: we have to start working smarter, using technology. The UK has a big productivity problem. We just aren’t achieving as much as we should be, compared to how hard we are working. For three decades until 2007, our productivity was growing between 2-3pc annually.

After the economic crisis, it was expected to start improving again. Instead, productivity growth has been closer to zero. If this continues, our wages will remain stubbornly flat and our living standards will suffer.

Technology in the workplace is an obvious solution: the whole point is to automate the most boring parts of human work so you can get more done. Online file-sharing startup Box estimates that productivity for “knowledge” workers can increase by upto 20pc with the right tools.

Yet no one I’ve ever worked with has enjoyed the software and systems they use daily: in fact, they just view it as a barrier o productivity.

So why are offices so bad at adapting to tech?

Firstly, businesses believe throwing a horde of inexperienced millennials at the problem will solve it. But that just won’t work. Just because they are handy with Snapchat filters and emoji use doesn’t mean they can figure out decades-old software or an over-designed expenses app.

The Cisco study backs this up: it found that the age of employees or their familiarity with tech at home did not predict how easily they could adopt new technologies at work.

This is partly because many digital tools in offices today are outdated and clunky, which means millennials are likely to just bypass them. Why navigate the rocket-science level complexities of a photo database when you’ve got Google Images?

Also, digital tech - even in the workplace - is evolving at breakneck speed: Joe Coughlin, who runs the MIT AgeLab studying ageing and society said in an interview that a 35-year-old today is probably “as antiquated” as a 55-year-old from two decades ago, because of this pace of change.

The second reason our businesses are adapting poorly is many believe high-end, shiny gadgets will do the trick. This is of course partly true – new devices and well-designed systems can be a joy to use.

But the Cisco report found that this wasn’t good enough – nice tech doesn’t mean people become familiar enough with it for everyday use.  Just look at the recent disastrous £6m trial of iPad Minis by London’s Met Police, which has been put on indefinite hold.

Apparently, portability of the 300-gram, notebook-sized devices was the problem.

Take my own team as an example. When I joined, I wanted to use an office chat app called Slack – the Californian startup has taken businesses around the world, from Nasa to Deloitte, Ogilvy and Ocado, by storm.

UK retailer Lush has said that since they began using Slack, email has reduced by 75 pc. What could possibly go wrong? I’d tried it out briefly and it was clean, easy to set up and use. It was like WhatsApp for work, and far more fun than email.

My all-millennial team was enthusiastic. But a week in, our Telegraph Tech Slack group lay neglected in some corner of my computer’s virtual memory. I believe it petered out quickly because of my own example: I bought into the idea of Slack, but not into implementing it.

This is the key to why we are failing at taking up tech at work. Age, experience, IT support or even the tech itself doesn’t solve the problem: leadership does. I spoke to Phil Smith, chief executive of Cisco UK and author of the new report, who said bosses were the single best predictive factor for smarter working.

If your boss doesn’t communicate the power of web and mobile to you, then you’ll likely think of it as a hindrance. If they’re passionate about its benefits, it will filter through to the entire organisation. Slack, for example, has made headway in large swathes of our newsroom, because of enthusiastic leadership on other teams.

As our lifespans lengthen inexorably, our working life is also going to elongate. If we live 100 healthy years, we will likely work more than half of it. No single job is going to last a career. We will need to be constantly retrained in new types of technologies, which will be changing at a far more rapid pace than that of the 2000s.

Just like we don’t have a “chief electricity officer” in offices today, the “digital person” will become obsolete – every team in every organisation will be led by digital natives. It's keep up or die.

I, for one, am going to be giving Slack another go. Hopefully this time round, my enthusiasm can make it stick.

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