Information-Driven Business
How to Manage Data and Information for Maximum Advantage

Robert Hillard

White collar productivity
by Robert Hillard

Have you ever faced transposing a row in a spreadsheet to a column, or perhaps tried to make a repeated change to values and wondered how to do it through menu options or functions? After wasting what feels like an eternity, you give up and do it manually one cell at a time? You’ve fallen victim to the productivity skills gap that has emerged as our offices have become more digital.

Any preparation for the future of work needs to tackle this skills gap. We spend a lot of time training blue collar workers how to do individual tasks in the safest and most and productive way. The same is not true of white collar workers who are paired with increasingly sophisticated digital tools.

There is a counterargument that such workers should have “freedom within the frame”. While there are many great examples where workforces have been given freedom to achieve an outcome within certain boundaries, individual workers have always had the specific skills they need to contribute to the overall goal. Hopefully professionals will continue to have a higher degree of freedom to achieve outcomes in a way that works for them, but that doesn’t abdicate employers and educators from providing the technical skills they need to be successful in a digital workplace.

It’s very likely that artificial intelligence will help intercept automation opportunities in the future. We’re already seeing tips pop-up based on the tasks that we’re trying to do. However, at least in the medium term, this advice is helping with tactical task management, not the big picture of applying digital tools to be a highly productive professional.

The pressure of immediate deadlines mean we often don’t do enough to find the most efficient way to automate or streamline the task at hand. We often fear wasting time looking for a digital capability that simply may not be there, leaving us with a greater loss of productivity than if we’d simply got on and done the job in the same laborious way as we’ve always done.

One of the biggest changes in our digital-enabled office is the huge variety of ways that individuals undertake the same task. While this can be empowering for some workers, it has created an even greater difference in productivity between the best and the worst performing white collar workers than ever before.

In years gone by there were limited ways to perform most administration in our professional lives. Today, the options have exploded and there is almost no standard. Email etiquette is in flux, with some people having thousands of unread email and no chance of ever catching-up. Others, however, seem to be able to keep on top of their workload with a few clever shortcuts.

My colleagues at Deloitte argue that three factors contribute to an executive’s success: time, talent and relationships. As our world becomes more electronic, we are becoming slaves to our electronic devices. It is amazing how many executives fail to take control of their diaries (time), productively use available technology to manage their teams (talent) or leverage digital channels to streamline their peer interactions (relationships).

An investment in office tools, and how they’re applied, can make a huge difference. Sadly, techniques for using software such as Microsoft Outlook are seldom taught and are often regarded as too trivial for senior professional. To illustrate, most of us have tools that include the capability to block-out time to protect time from distraction, alerts for meetings added in the distant future that are time wasters and the ability to delegate tasks.

Deciding how much and when to streamline or even automate a task shouldn’t be a hard one. The candidate activity might be the spreadsheet you produce twice a year, a regular email to which you just reply “approved” or a document that requires input from many team members. Professionals don’t need to know about every feature or capability in the tools they use, rather they should have an understanding of what is likely to be possible and access to help to learn how to find those features when needed.

The tendency is under-invest in digital office skills. To make the most of the future of work, we should take this on in small, manageable, chunks. A simple goal is to ensure that one skill is learnt by each staff member each week to add to their personal productivity.

There is the potential to quickly eliminate thousands of unread emails from inboxes, reduce the stress of information overload and save wasted effort by senior staff on menial activities. Business will see a measurable productivity benefit after just a few months.

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