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Why Is Workplace Technology So Much Harder to Use Than Personal Technology?

As anybody who uses personal technology knows, most devices and software are pretty easy to use. Apps on our smartphones make services available at the push of a button. Software can be easily installed and configured with one click. Plug a printer into a USB port on a laptop, and it’s ready to print.

Yet, for many employees, going to work is like stepping back in time. We are faced with clunky interfaces, systems that don’t talk to one another, and complex sign-ons. Indeed, workplace software is often so complex that employees need dedicated training courses just to learn how to use it.

All of which leads to a simple question: Why isn’t workplace technology as easy to use as personal technology?

The answer isn’t quite as simple as the question. There are legitimate reasons why the technology we use at work is more complicated. Companies have different missions, different constraints, different security concerns.

But the truth is that the gap between personal and workplace technology doesn’t have to be nearly as large as it is. To narrow it down, employers need to rethink how they build their technology, who gets a say, and how they roll it out. If they can do that, the resulting technology may not be as simple as a smartphone. But it will be close enough that workers won’t dread it every time they hear there’s new technology coming.

Does it matter? Do not question about it. Overly complex technology makes workers less productive and less engaged. It contributes to workplace dissatisfaction. And it makes workers more likely to burn out and leave.

It’s complicated

Companies can get locked in to legacy technology that limits what they can do.


PhotoIllustration:

Shawn Michael Jones for The Wall Street Journal

It is understandable to see the problem as one that can be easily solved by simply replacing old technology with something more modern. But it isn’t that simple.

First, with perhaps many thousands of employees scattered across multiple locations, a company can’t simply throw away old IT systems and software and replace them with newer versions, as we frequently see with consumer IT. And it gets even trickier when companies customize packaged software, tailoring it to what they see as their unique requirements, making the implementation of upgrades complicated and expensive.

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Second, there’s the issue of embedded legacy technology. This is due to how organizations typically design their technology systems. Their monolithic design means that data, processing logic, and user interface are all combined into a self-contained and independent IT system. This, of course, suits vendors with the lock-in that it promotes, but can present problems if a company wants to move to a new provider. That’s why legacy technology is so embedded.

Third, with consumer IT, the services are, for the most part, “point” solutions, with a single purpose. Imagine traveling to another city to see your favorite band. When you book a flight with a particular airline, you select your preferred flight and enter your name, address, phone numbers and credit-card details to make the purchase, unless you are a regular flier with the airline and this information is already stored. Choose another airline, and all this data will have to be rekeyed. When you book the hotel room, you do it all again. Then the tickets to the concert will have to be reserved, restaurants booked, and that taxi to the airport hailed, all via different apps and interfaces.

It all may be a bit time-consuming, even cumbersome, but it’s also very simple.

The corporate world, on the other hand, strives for integration and data sharing across the organization. An organization’s tech landscape is likely to have systems of different vintages, siloed, often stitched together with the tech equivalent of sticky tape. This inevitably leads to complexity.

Fourth, complexity can also result from the normal course of business activities. For example, acquiring a company usually entails also taking on its unique IT systems. Companies operating in different geographies are faced with different maturity levels of national IT infrastructures and the obligation to meet local regulatory and sometimes market requirements. Strategic moves by competitors can sometimes warrant an immediate response, meaning that new systems often have to be built rapidly, without necessarily fitting the corporate architectural blueprint.

Fifth, the security and privacy issues are also different in the business IT world. In our personal lives, we take responsibility for the protection of our own data: how we use it, where we put it, and the rights we assign to others to use it. In the corporate environment, employees are dealing with other people’s data, particularly those of customers, patients and citizens. They have legal responsibilities and need to worry about protecting and safeguarding this data, while making sure data or systems aren’t compromised in any way that will affect either the performance or reputation of the business.

All of these issues were only exacerbated by the pandemic. When Covid forced countries into lockdown, organizations accelerated their investments in modern workplace technologies. Videoconferencing, collaborative platforms, document management and other digital tools were rolled out in great haste.

But many have now ended up with what we call CovIT: a mishmash of modern solutions and legacy tech that is tied to old ways of working. Adding to the problem is that in the rush to support remote working, products from different vendors providing similar capabilities were frequently deployed at the same time (think Zoom and Microsoft Teams or Yammer and Slack).

The way forward

Workplace technology doesn’t have to be as complicated as it is—and workers don’t have to be filled with dread every time they hear there’s new tech coming.


PhotoIllustration:

Shawn Michael Jones for The Wall Street Journal

Clearly, all of these reasons pose a challenge for organizations that want to simplify their technology. But it isn’t impossible. The more digitally astute organizations have learned that usability standards for workplace technology must strive to be at the same levels as consumer-facing tech. They do this by following these five principles:

Involves all users in the design process. The consequence of not doing this is starkly illustrated by the experience of many employees with their organization’s expense-claims management app. Typically, the accounting department purchases the expense-management software and rolls it out to all staff. Not surprisingly, the software is great for the accounting staff. But that’s because it offloads a lot of the work to the individual employees. The result is clunky interfaces for inputting claims data and receipts together with nonintuitive processes, making for a lousy user experience.

Instead, multidisciplinary teams need to first understand employees’ problems to be solved, so they can then build experiences that satisfy the needs of all stakeholders, whether they work in sales, accounting or wherever.

Co-develop workplace experiencesrather than solutions. Sometimes, the purpose of new technology is to push employees to work differently. Maybe you want the salesperson to spend more time inputting crucial data about clients, or a police officer to register how many people were stopped. While we don’t want to codify old-school ways of doing things, we need to make it easier to do new things in new ways.

Too often, new technology adds complexity without considering the employee experience. If you force somebody to add two clicks they deem unnecessary to something they do 100 times a day, two things are certain: Employees will hate it, and they will find alternative ways to work around it.

With technologists and employees collaborating closely, the same approaches used in designing systems for customer engagement are applied to building employee facing apps. Rather than focusing on building “a solution,” they develop experiences that satisfy the needs of all stakeholders. The delivered software meets their job needs in a way that is also highly intuitive.

Put everything on the same platform. One bank we studied had instituted an aggressive digital transformation strategy that delivered award-winning digital solutions for customers. While customers celebrated employees, they were paddling like ducks in the background. Employee-facing technologies had not kept pace. All sorts of mundane work-related actions—applying for leave, logging into training systems, managing travel and so on—were absurdly complex. Employees had to remember what system to use, how to use it, and often what password to apply.

The CEO was determined to do something about it. By consolidating all of the work-life technologies such as email, social networking, expense and travel management, leave planning, etc. into a single platform, employees were able to manage all of these technologies in a single place. Rather than a network of disconnected workplace technologies that couldn’t talk to each other, employees enjoyed one searchable virtual environment.

Adopt a cloud-first, mobile-first approach. Most challenges in the workplace are solved in teams. Making work more mobile and accessed from the cloud means that people with the best skills can come together to get the best outcomes.

For example, surgeons with specialist skills in Europe work with teams in Australia to operate in real time. Experienced engineers work with teams in remote mining locations without leaving their homes. Making it easier for people to collaborate and make decisions requires images, documents and live visuals all to be accessed and worked on in real time when and where they are needed. Workplace tech can provide the speed, access and security that means that the best people for the job can be accessed regardless of where they are.

Use AI technologies to help employees get more out of digital tools. AI “coach bots” can guide employees to use the appropriate technology. This approach is one way to compensate for the inability of some employees to choose their tools as they would in their consumer lives. . Coach bots leverage large banks of user data to show users how to work with the technologies to do more things, or make work easier.

One company that we observed in our research had developed extensive calendar-management capabilities for their people to make it easier to coordinate meetings, only to find that the capabilities were barely used. They developed bots to prompt users to automate searches for rooms, manage passes for external guests, and organize parking, catering and other services. The more the system was used, the more the bots learned. A previously arduous job, fraught with mistakes and time-consuming omissions, became increasingly easier and more reliable.

The bots also significantly reduced training costs and the time it took to introduce new technologies. Changes to ways of working could be implemented in days rather than the months required in the past.

Let employees rate the technology. Consumers rate the technology they use in their personal lives. If some new software got an abysmal rating, the software company would move quickly to fix it. Why shouldn’t employees have that same voice? The key to great workplace tech is to amplify those voices, make changes quickly, and deliver technologies in the workplace that makes work easier.

Dr. Peppard, a technology researcher, was previously principal research scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management. Prof. Dery is a professor of work, technology and innovation at Macquarie University Business School in Sydney and an academic research fellow at the MIT Center for Information Research. They can be reached at reports@wsj.com

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