Article appears in today’s Belfast Telegraph also available on

WhatsApp with productivity?

Productivity in the UK workplace has risen by over 80 per cent per hour since the 1970s, according to research by the Centre for Business and Economic Research (Cebr), with mobile phones, email and business software responsible for the increase.

The last five years or so have seen particularly rapid technological progress, with the speed of internet connections rising exponentially, and the hardware that we use to do our jobs becoming much faster and much more powerful. Knowledge is power and access to knowledge has never been easier.

We can now communicate with millions of people around the world in an instant; transfer large files in seconds that would previously have taken hours, or even days; and workers can easily access and edit documents on smart devices, and use connectivity like 4G to stay in touch wherever they go.

But whilst technological change has continued apace in recent years, the reality is that Northern Ireland’s relative productivity performance has hardly advanced at all. Indeed, the gap between GVA per head (a key measure of economic prosperity) here and the UK average has actually been widening.

There are numerous reasons for this; not least the fact that Northern Ireland has higher levels of economic inactivity than elsewhere. Also, we have a higher concentration of low productivity sectors relative to other regions. However, it would be very useful for Northern Ireland to commission a study into whether we are making the most of the incredible technological progress that there has been to improve productivity - particularly within the public sector - and indeed the extent to which more recent technological developments might actually be holding us back.

With regard to the latter, new research seems to prove that Tweeting, posting to Facebook, or checking LinkedIn when you are working makes you less productive. The study, by a computing professor from Middle Tennessee State University, found that social media at work holds back even the best multitaskers, interrupting them from important duties, which they then take time to get back into.

This can also impact on people’s well-being, with the study finding that those who have a lot of ‘digital interruptions’ have “higher levels of technostress and lower happiness”. This is perhaps why Volkswagen announced that servers would stop sending emails 30 minutes after the end of employees' shifts, and only start again half an hour before the person returned to work. And why France has brought in rules to protect employees from work email disturbing them outside office hours.

Because of social media, email and smartphones, our brains are busier than ever before, as we are continually assaulted with news, facts, quasi facts, chatter and other updates. Our smartphones have become technological Swiss army knives, offering everything from games to torches. They’re more powerful and do more than the most advanced computer of 30 years ago. We see them as enablers that allow us to do many things at once; but is that really the case?

A neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Earl Miller who studied this says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well”. He says that “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So, we think we’re being more efficient and productive because of our smart devices, but we are often actually doing the opposite.

Given all of this, it was with great interest that I attended an event organised by Ofcom recently to discuss their Northern Ireland Communications Market Report. As Ofcom say, Northern Ireland is now a ‘smartphone society’, with smartphones having become the most popular device for getting online. Smartphones are now in the pockets of nearly two thirds of Northern Ireland adults, up from 21% in 2011. Some 37% of Northern Ireland internet users say their smartphone is the most important device for staying connected, compared to 26% who say laptops.

Linked to the rise in smartphone, and tablet, ownership, there has also been a marked increase in the amount of time people spend online, up from 13 hours and 48 minutes a week to 21 hours and 36 minutes a week. This is above the UK average and highest of the four UK nations.

Facebook is the most popular social networking website with 65% of adults saying they have used the site, followed by Whatsapp (40%) and Twitter (33%). Nearly a quarter of adults (23%) admit to being “hooked” on social media.

Interestingly, LinkedIn usage in Northern Ireland is markedly lower per head of population than in the rest of the UK. LinkedIn is the social network for business people, so perhaps our lower usage is linked to our smaller private sector. Or maybe it’s something to do with our more modest nature making us less effective at marketing ourselves.

Of note also is that, whilst the proportion of Northern Ireland people who report using the internet to buy goods and services is comparable to the UK average, this is not the case when it comes to accessing government websites. Northern Ireland people are much less likely to do so than people elsewhere in the UK. This raises the question as to whether, in an era when cost-savings and efficiencies in the public sector are very much to the fore, whether government here is doing enough to maximise digital rather than more costly face-to-face interaction? Are Northern Ireland’s government websites up to the mark?

Overall, Ofcom’s figures present an interesting narrative of Northern Ireland as a society getting up to speed with technological advances and benefits. But we need to understand better why these are not resulting in productivity improvements. More investigation is needed to find out ‘WhatsApp’ with productivity.

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