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Productivity Tools Can Hurt Team Productivity – Here’s How to Prevent That

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Team collaborating using laptops

How we use technology in the workplace of the future – and its impact on team productivity- was a prominent question a few years ago at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival. It’s an evergreen question to be sure.

Futurist or not, all entrepreneurs have probably wondered at some point: is the tech designed to boost workplace performance actually helping it or hurting? The co-founders of Reddit, Slack and Basecamp had a lively discussion on this topic. One insight that emerged: many apps designed to boost individual productivity may undermine the effectiveness of working together.

While I’m a big fan of finding ways to boost my own productivity, working with others is where much of the magic happens. So wisdom says, it pays to know how to use technology to enable team productivity and make the magic happen.

Do these four things to ensure your productivity tools help – not hurt – your team’s productivity.

1. Be clear about the purpose of your productivity and communication tools.

Know what you want each tool to do and have a sense of how they work together. If you don’t, take a few minutes to think it through.

This may take some trial and error. And what you use a year from now may be different than what you do now. That’s ok. The point is to be intentional. Don’t just keep adding tools because it sounds like a good idea.  

2. Don’t give up on the apps or tools you already have.

In his article on productivity, the founder of Jotform said, ”We fiddle around with them, realize they’re not a magic bullet, and start looking for something else.” He points out that the difference between tools and skills. Take Michael Jordan’s talent and his Nike shoes. No matter the logo on his footwear (the tool) without his legendary basketball ability (skill), he wouldn’t have helped the Chicago Bulls win championships.

Recognize that productivity tools are tools, not a skill or a strategy. The tool may not be the problem, you’re lack of clarity around why you have it or the workflow it’s supposed to support might.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking a tool isn’t good because people aren’t using it. People need to be trained and encouraged to work in certain ways. This is easier with a small set of tools and if leaders set the example. If you work with others outside your organization, agree on how you want to work and the tools to support that way of working.

3. Don’t fall for the myth that responsiveness equals productivity.

As a 20-something consultant working onsite at Microsoft for a few days, I’ll never forget the picture of attending a meeting where almost everyone kept checking instant messenger or was working on other things. In a heavy meeting culture, people felt they had to work this way to keep work moving (see my next point). I’ll give you one guess as to whether that team meeting was productive.

Basecamp’s Jason Fried, believes that the expectation of an immediate response built up by instant messaging tools, for example, breeds a more anxious culture.

Anxiety is the enemy of productivity, not its friend. Many highly productive people have recognized this (Tim Ferris for one) and minimize, or have completely eliminated, a technology that gives others instant access to them.

Focus on real communication vs. responsiveness. Check to see if what the team is working on is connected to a big picture, if people are clear and happy about the roles they have on the team and if you have a shared set of expectations.

4. Build “think time” into your work culture and habits.

Whether you lead a big team, are part of a team or collaborate with others periodically, schedule “think time” or “deep work” time and defend it from the persistent pings of your productivity apps. These uninterrupted periods will give you the clarity to be more effective at working with others and focus to do important work.

As Peter Drucker said, effectiveness is getting the right things done, while efficiency is doing things right. You can be really efficient at doing the wrong thing. I think about watching my son play soccer when he was young. At least once during a season, someone on his team would sprint toward the wrong goal and score, then be very confused why the team and parents weren’t cheering.

You need “think time” to be effective. And you can’t do that if you’re in perpetual response and collaboration mode via email, Slack or Teams Chat.

What have you found to be the most helpful ways to work with others, with or without technology? Do you use a task management tool to work as  a team? If not, download my curated guide, “The Top 7 Free Task Management Tools for Teams”, to explore some of the options.