Martijn Aslander

May 10, 2022

How we work isn’t working. What now?

The hope was once that computers would help people to work smarter and more efficiently. And that the advent of the network society, some ten years ago, would increase people’s options and thereby empower them. For example, by collaborating effectively together, they could achieve things while sidestepping old and existing management structures. So they would no longer be held back by layers of management, hierarchy or bureaucracy. In addition, knowledge and innovations would circulate much faster within a network society and thus realise its potential. Technology would reduce, or even eliminate, the friction between issues and solutions. And the intermediate links in the value chain (retailers!) could disappear.

Poorer access to the right information 

But things have turned out very differently. We haven’t begun to work smarter or more efficiently. On the contrary, rather than working less, computers (and smartphones) have actually contributed to us working more and more. Without it leading to correspondingly higher productivity. This is especially problematic when we consider that an increasing percentage of the employed labour force is engaged day in, day out with knowledge work. Despite which, we have never clearly agreed with one another what exactly we mean by knowledge work or how we can do that work in a way that’s smart.

Let's assume anyone who spends at least 4-5 hours a day in front of a computer meets the definition of 'knowledge worker'. And rather than their computer being a user-friendly, efficient tool that’s at their service, knowledge workers have become slaves to their computer. For working with screens, we have developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The computer claims our attention, focus and the cognitive part of our brain; and all the while we are drowning in information. Microsoft confirmed that an average knowledge worker spends 240 hours a year — or 6 working weeks — just retrieving information. The mindboggling truth is that organisations have spent decades investing in ever newer information technology, and yet knowledge workers' access to (quickly finding) the right information is worse than ever. Instead of providing the expected bridge between people and ideas, IT has turned out to be a growing obstacle to it.

70’s office space 

There are various reasons for this. When it comes to IT solutions, we have forgotten the I: the focus is too much on the technology and too little on what knowledge workers need in terms of information, such as its being easy to find, organise, filter, share, produce, store and publish — and not in minutes but seconds. This is because we have housed our online information capital in an office environment still largely based on what existed in the 1970s. For example, the folders, subfolders and documents in Office 365. In many organisations, people have no information awareness, no vision about information. Instead of being organised smartly, information is still presented in a largely document-centric way. Most probably, we could have solved the corona crisis far earlier had everyone been able to immediately find the right information.

Another problem is that top management in most organisations have no idea about the possibilities technology offers. They have outsourced thinking about IT decisions to a single Chief Technology Officer or Chief Data Officer. And not only management teams: boards, HR professionals and works councils all conveniently assume that everything to do with technology is the domain of the IT department. While in practice the IT department is mainly occupied with security, arranging backups, and replacing hard- and software. That’s far too limited. And in many organisations, the familiar complaints about 'our IT legacy systems' fall on deaf ears. In short, technology is not on the conscious radar of top management. Which is a problem, as they are the people responsible for budgets and decisions regarding technology choices.

Continuously harassed 

A second factor is that knowledge workers are increasingly harassed by emails, notifications and other pop-up messages that continually break their concentration. So they feel increasingly busy, while at the same time being less and less able to get to the core of their job: the particular analytical work for which they were originally hired. Cal Newport rightly makes a plea in his book Liberated! for giving space to 'deep work': concentrated work for which you need time and rest, so that creativity and original thinking can flourish. But we rarely get that time due to the many distractions. And this comes at the cost of our productivity, creativity and, ultimately, our health.

Though we increasingly work in self-managing teams and other horizontal work structures, many employees are used to looking to their boss, and to listening to the messages and signals coming from the group to which they belong. They are governed by old mechanisms: a message from the community, especially from your boss, is difficult to ignore. Mails and other messages must be quickly checked 'between tasks’, seriously disrupting one’s concentration. The more frequently you check your mail (and many do it at least 100 times a day), the more others control your working life. All that checking uses up a lot of storage capacity in our prefrontal cortex, meaning we’re less able to focus on the deep tasks in our work. The more often you are disturbed as a knowledge worker by questions and comments, the more likely it is you’ll no longer be able to do your actual work at all. The brain must be regularly rested: a stressed-out chicken lays no eggs.

Lack of digital fitness 

A third aspect is how the employees themselves function: most of them lack ‘digital fitness’, a concept that we can break down into five pillars (see box 2). How do you improve that digital fitness? Well, for example by letting employees develop effective agreements at team level about when they can best use which digital tools, for what purposes and in what ways — preferably agreed unanimously. And check regularly whether new, better digital tools have come onto the market. Have detailed discussions about this within the team each month and draw up a digital work manifesto. In addition, given the increasing speed of change, it’s a good idea not to set anything in stone but to go for temporary solutions that are easy to adapt and improve. In that respect, we can learn from programmers, who refer to the open development phase of their programmes as being in a ‘permanent beta state’.

Wrong or limited use of our digital tools, combined with the proliferation of mails, notifications and other distractions, has overloaded our brains. But people don’t dare to raise this issue within organisations, so that the focus and budget goes to the wrong approach to dealing with the fallout. It’s high time we broke this taboo. Because the fact that in practice information and communication flows increasingly falter has far-reaching consequences. Knowledge workers suffer from work stress, are more likely to have a burnout, and look forward less and less to opening their laptops at the start of a working day. We suffer from an overload of information that is inadequately filtered. Over the long term, this is dangerous and expensive: knowledge workers will temporarily or permanently disengage.

Ashamed of our lack of digital skills

There is, of course, a direct link between physical fitness and digital fitness. Knowledge workers spend an average 95% of their work time indoors, where the air quality is poor and physical movement limited to a few trips to the espresso machine. Everyone realises that physical fitness is vital to digital fitness; but the reverse is also true.

Another factor that can stand in the way of digital fitness is that most knowledge workers, from senior to junior, are essentially in fear of their computers. They feel uncomfortable with the idea that they spend a large part of their day using a tool which they don’t fully understand. Being ashamed of this fact, they don’t dare ask colleagues for digital help. This shame, which certainly affects managers in the higher echelons (don’t let your employees see that you don’t know something) can have far-reaching consequences. In England, for example, incorrect use of Excel led to 1,500 extra corona deaths, because people using the National Health Service's contact-tracing programme overlooked more than 20,000 cases of infection. In practice, many knowledge workers only use their computers as a glorified typewriter, leaving most of its potential untapped. So they continue to work the same way as they did in, say, the 1970s.

Not only do knowledge workers themselves have to keep their digital skills and knowledge up-to-speed. This is also a key task for both line managers and HR, who both often lack the necessary digital skills. They tend to be far too quick to assume their employees or colleagues have mastered their digital tools. This is pure wishful thinking, and ensures that any given digitisation project is doomed to failure. It is estimated, for example, that 60-70% of all knowledge workers who use a computer on a daily basis don’t know what hitting alt+tab lets you do (namely, quickly switch between programmes). And if this lack of digital skills also undermines psychological well-being within an organisation, then you have a real problem. Because if people don't feel safe to ask for help and tips about this kind of stuff, a logical consequence is that some of them will feel less engaged and no longer feel they’re making a significant contribution to the organisation. Which is disastrous for their motivation and can even lead to them quitting.

More quantity, less quality

There are those who draw the conclusion from all this that how we work isn’t working, but their response then tends to be simply to work even harder. We email even more (with even more cc’s, when you can communicate far better with someone through a face-to-face chat or a phone call) thus causing even more disruption. Email is increasingly being misused to send documents back and forth, which is essentially another symptom of the fact that we've never really thought about what knowledge work is and how to do it.

What we should be focused on is the human aspects of digitisation. People who work hard become tired and communicate less effectively. The role of managers is crucial here: don’t, for example, interfere with team members’ work too much, because employees want task-autonomy. The more pressure they feel, the greater the chance of a burnout. If we look at how things really work within organisations, sadly we must conclude that too often the task-autonomy of knowledge workers is ridiculously low. Though managers don't see it that way; or don't want to see it, because they’re afraid that 'delegating' autonomy will come at the expense of their own influence and powerbase. Quite apart from the work-related stress that this directly causes for knowledge workers, managers shouldn’t forget that they can better focus on managing workflows than people. As management theorist, Peter Drucker, pointed out as early as the 1950s: you will never know what’s going on inside the head of a knowledge worker. So you should let that knowledge worker work autonomously. If the way they solve a problem is by taking a long shower or lying on a lawn, then let him do that. They’re still working. So don’t concern yourself as a manager with how a knowledge worker does their job. Do you want something to be done, or do you want it to be done your way? Many managers want the latter and that, as Drucker rightly points out, is a fundamental mistake. Concentrate instead on managing the workflows because that’s where the real challenges lie.

Screen fatigue? Get digitally fit! 

What has been the impact of the corona crisis on all this? Corona has made working remotely commonplace and forced us to adopt it lightning fast. Many employees want things to stay this way, or want to move towards a hybrid model where they spend at most only part of their work hours in the office. A logical consequence of this is that we now do much more online, including everything from hours of meetings to online Friday after work drinks. This also has a big impact on how you provide leadership: middle managers in particular suffer from a tendency to keep 'their people' glued to their screens all day because they want to direct and control. This is a very traditional reflex, and leaders and managers instead need to investigate how they can best implement remote leadership. Some may find this challenging, as it means they will have to focus mainly on trust rather than control. What’s more, the war for talent is with us once again, as the global economy picks up and more and more vacancies remain open longer. So managers will be well-advised to respond to the wishes of talents to work (more) remotely.

To be able to work well digitally and/or remotely, you must be digitally fit. All things considered, digital fitness is probably more important now than ever before. Many knowledge workers have reached their limit: their 'screen fatigue’ is worse than ever before, especially as they are not fully proficient with their digital tools. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, then, if they could significantly reduce their screen hours by having excellent digital skills and good digital hygiene?

Achieve more in less time

This means knowledge workers should spend a few evenings a week learning about smart systems, and how they can use their digital tools more effectively and efficiently. Research amongst civil servants showed that while 98% of them use Outlook, only 4% have mastered its capabilities. So they work several hours a day with a programme while having little or no knowledge of its full capabilities.

Brain researchers have shown that we can only work in a concentrated and focused manner for about 3 hours a day. So my proposition is this: if you work a maximum of 5 hours a day, 4 days a week; are digitally skilled; and are given the time and opportunity to work in a concentrated manner, you will get a lot more done. And in far less work time than we are currently used to. But only working 5 hours a day goes against the Calvinistic nature of the Dutch. We prefer to spend long working days operating inefficiently, for heaven forbid that someone accuse us of being lazy! Yet it is precisely by offering space for radical experimentation that such a 5-hour working day could become a possibility. At the start of the last century, by conducting radical experiments with standardisation and the assembly line, Henry Ford was able to increase the productivity of the workers in Ford factories by a factor of 50. Unfortunately, in recent decades we have neglected to attempt any such radical experiments to achieve similar increases in productivity. So we need to give more thought to the cognitive load on the brains of knowledge workers. But a prerequisite of that is digital fitness.

BOX 1 Martijn Aslander CV

Martijn Aslander sees himself as someone who aims to inspire, and connect people, information and ideas. Twenty years ago, he and thousands of volunteers built a huge ‘hunebed’ (a kind of local prehistoric obelisk) in Drenthe in just two years. Martijn was one of the founders of the Lifehacking movement, a group of people who give practical (IT) tips to help others work more effectively in less time. So that IT facilitates you having less stress and more impact for lower costs. The books Easycratie (Easycracy) and Nooit af (Never done), which he wrote with Erwin Witteveen, were both shortlisted for Management Book of the Year. 

A book on Digital Fitness is due out soon by Martijn and co-authors Mark Meinema and Arjan Broeders. A platform with the same name provides a kind of 'digital gym' with articles, courses, podcasts and expert meetings on digital fitness.

BOX 2 The five pillars of Digital Fitness 

-Digital awareness: the impact of the network- and information society, where technology plays an important role, is enormous, and brings with it new rules. Digital awareness is about what this requires of us as people and organisations in terms of knowledge levels, attitude and behaviour. And how we should organise things differently where necessary.

-Digital hygiene: in effect an extension of social hygiene. Employees should agree, preferably at team level, what digital tools they should use, when and how. As well as how to clean up their digital clutter, prevent digital scams, best organise backups, handle passwords, etc.

-Digital skills: an estimated 90% of computer users need to brush up on their digital skills. This will save a lot of time and so increase effectiveness. Sparing people a lot of digital stress and freeing up hundreds of hours a year.

-Personal knowledge management: the latest generations of digital tools let employees 'capture' their knowledge much faster and share it more effectively with colleagues. An application like Notion, an online whiteboard like Miro, or note-apps like Evernote and Roam Research are all tools that help you ‘liquify’ your knowledge.

-Personal growth through technology: most knowledge workers want to continue developing themselves, preferably through lifelong learning. This contributes to and enhances their sustainable employability, and technology can really help here.

Please note: the relative importance of the various pillars varies per knowledge worker, depending on their position, role and responsibilities. So while for a programmer, digital skills will outweigh digital awareness, the opposite is true for their CEO.

Source: (Dutch language)

A dutch version of this article was published in Managementbook Magazine


About Martijn Aslander

Technologie-filosoof | Auteur | Spreker | Verbinder | Oprichter van vele initiatieven

Momenteel vrolijk druk met Digitale Fitheid 

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