Why Work Tech is the answer to plummeting productivity | Thomas.co

We sat down with leading industry analyst George LaRocque to discuss why productivity and employee engagement are on the decline, and how team interaction optimisation (TIO) and the wider Work Tech category are key to reversing the trend.

Why is it important to talk about teamwork right now?

There are so many factors that are leading us to focus on teams. From a high level, we've seen a steady decline in productivity in the United States since 2005, and other developed economies since the 1970s and 1980s. Engagement is also low, at around 20 to 40%, no matter which numbers you use - Gallup's or Willis Towers Watson's. Right now, in the UK, engagement is 10% and in the US it’s 34%. Obviously, these figures are dismal.

With productivity dropping and engagement perennially low, we're clearly not enabling the workforce to do their best. The measures we have taken to address this – from flatter organisational structures to new management philosophies – all focus on the team. The team is where engagement happens, productivity increases and problems are solved. We have created great reward structures, new feedback loops and HR technologies in our efforts to improve engagement and productivity, but we have still struggled to create real connection in teams.

What new demands are being put on teams today? 

Everyone agrees that the world is changing rapidly, but the challenges posed by these changes are not universal - they vary across jobs, roles, industries, organisations, and demographics. Which means there's no "one-size-fits-all" solution. 

Of course, the way we collaborate at work has evolved significantly in the past five years. Whether you're a frontline worker or a knowledge worker based at your home or office, our reliance on technology has increased dramatically. This has created a noticeable distance between us, affecting both our individual roles and our connection with the wider organisation. 

Now we spend our days in front of screens, which is a dramatic shift away from the interaction-centric approaches of 10 to 15 years ago. This change has led to a pervasive sense of disconnection from our teams and companies, a phenomenon that I focus on in my report, ‘Improving the Employee – Company Connection’. Team interaction optimisation (TIO) addresses this disconnect.   

Businesses are under immense pressure on various fronts. Economic uncertainties and downturns, unpredictable events like global pandemics, and even natural disasters all impact every business. During such times, having a strong understanding of how to work together most effectively becomes an invaluable asset. The recent pandemic has underscored the need for integrating this insight and improving on our current systems. 

How is Work Tech evolving to reconnect us?

Work Tech extends beyond HR tech, providing a foundation of technology that allows us to access HR insights within the flow of work. Being in the flow doesn't mean interrupting it, but rather, being on hand in the moments that matter - from more trivial and tactical tasks to strategic decisions, and everything in between. After all, engagement isn’t limited to crisis points or major milestones; they can be about accomplishing everyday tasks or simple interactions. 

For decades, even before COVID-19, we've been engaged in a battle for talent, experiencing a decrease in available workers and increased stress levels among the workforce. The pandemic didn't introduce remote and distributed work, but it did highlight their importance, drawing attention to the need for foundational tech that supports these ways of working. 

For instance, behavioural science assessments have proven useful in hiring, career progression, and retention, but they can also help us understand how we perform best at work individually and as a team. Unfortunately, the rich insights gained from these assessments often get left behind in our day-to-day work. For practical reasons, the mentality has essentially been 'set it and forget it'. 

Work Tech offers a solution to this problem, ensuring that critical information is always at hand. Whether we're entering a meeting, discussing productivity, dealing with a challenge, or engaging on collaboration tools like Teams or Slack, we can access relevant data and insights. This insight applies to everyone, from team members to CEOs. The aim is to empower all individuals with the kind of data insights that make their work more effective and their presence more impactful. 

Achieving this integration has been quite challenging until recently, but the advent of conversational interfaces like Teams and Slack, improved API integration capabilities, and the emergence of Work Tech that can pull productivity and engagement data into other systems has made it feasible. 

Now, these insights can be available where the work gets done, decisions are made, and conversations take place, across a variety of apps and platforms. This enhances our effectiveness in work conversations, whether the goal is to improve productivity, be a better leader, or address engagement and cultural issues. Ultimately, team interaction embraces all aspects of our professional lives, making the work experience more cohesive and productive.

How can businesses adapt to thrive under the pressures they face today? 

Today's prevailing theme across all businesses, whether growing or struggling, is the need to 'do more with less'. Regardless of the situation, most businesses are grappling with reduced resources and shrinking budgets, yet they must still strive to achieve their business goals. 

For growing businesses, this trajectory brings about unique challenges. In this uncertain economic climate, there is a widespread hesitancy to invest and spend. Therefore, even as they aspire to reach their goals, they do so conservatively, preparing for any economic turbulence that might be lurking around the corner. 

Recession threats and government interventions have caused a disconnect in the job market, which presents both blessings and curses. Although jobs are still available, interest rates are being increased to cool off the job market. This isn't favourable for those laid off or those needing to expand their teams, as the costs of supporting businesses are rising. 

This immediate stress is bound to have significant short-term impacts on all teams and businesses everywhere. The decreasing half-life of skills, as indicated by the World Economic Forum and IBM, implies that within a decade, most or all of your skills may need to be replaced. This adds to the pressure to adapt and acquire new skills amidst rapid transformation. 

Businesses and individuals need to understand how to incorporate Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies into their operations, gauge their impacts on their teams, and identify the skills needed to stay relevant and leverage new technologies and processes effectively. 

In an environment where technical skills turnover is high, softer skills such as resilience, the ability to learn and manage uncertainty, and understanding your team's strengths become crucial. These skills, into which we gain insights through behavioural science, are becoming increasingly strategic. Looking ahead, these are the key to navigating the great unknown, underlining the importance of having the right people on your team.

What excites you most about Team Interaction Optimisation and the wider Work Tech category? 

A new hire might be a great fit for a team, but understanding how they work best with their colleagues equally important. Questions such as how much information an individual needs to perform well, and how they prefer to receive it, are crucial for optimal team interaction. Not addressing these needs leads to disengagement and potentially employee churn. 

While HR, HR Tech, and people science have always intended to harness these insights, the challenge has been in activating them. We knew how to identify what made an individual or team thrive in a specific environment, and we could pick up on signals indicating potential issues with engagement and productivity. But consolidating this knowledge was hard. The data was difficult to access, and due to time pressures of business execution, these solutions weren’t scalable.  

Nobody has the time to constantly check a system to see their teammates’ communication preferences. But if this information is readily available in tools like calendars, email, Zoom, Teams, or Slack, it can be taken into account in preparation for meetings. We can instantly access deep insights to inform every interaction, not just the big milestones. 

As technologies advance and the underlying science evolves, we can deliver cost-effective and meaningful solutions that were previously only theoretical. These new approaches to teamwork are driving commercially significant, personally meaningful results, and that's truly exciting. 

For more insights into the engagement crisis and Work Tech generation of solutions, download the special analyst report by George LaRocque ‘Improving the Employee – Company Connection’ now.