Is there any way out? Time to take a step back. Photo: Getty
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The dark side of digital work: how technology is making us less productive

The more time and effort we spend keeping on top of ever-changing applications and struggling to swim through gluts of information, the less productive they are at work.

Digital technology has certainly delivered for business, leading to multiplying uses and channels, spiralling across the world of work. But the pace and scope of the transformation has been far greater than we could have imagined, and is beginning to push up against our human abilities to cope.

From a series of studies we’ve built up evidence of a fast-emerging “dark side” of IT:  technology stress, technology overload, technology addiction and IT misuse in the workplace. The very qualities that make IT useful – dependability, convenience, ease of use and quick processing – may also be harming productivity and people’s well-being.

“Technostress” comes from our feeling forced to multitask rapidly over streams of information from different devices, having to constantly learn how to use ever-changing IT, and the sense of being tied to our devices with no real divide between work and home. A survey of 600 computer-using professionals, for example, found that 73 per cent worried that not being constantly connected to their workplaces would place them at a professional disadvantage. Many employees confessed to feeling “addicted” – spending an average of 23 minutes each day responding to work emails when at home, and feeling compelled to stay in touch and working while on their commute, on weekends and even on holidays. Another aspect of the dark side is that employees can knowingly – or unknowingly – misuse their firm’s IT resources and compromise IT security. It’s very difficult to stop an employee who has authorised access to a system obtaining confidential company information and selling it to outsiders, naively using unlicensed software or opening up an email with a virus.

The more time and effort employees spend keeping on top of ever-changing applications and struggling to swim through gluts of information, the less productive they are at work. They’re more likely to be hasty and rushed in how they deal with information, with less time for thoughtful analysis, thinking through issues and problems, which makes it more likely people will just stick to routines and what they know. Technostress also affects relationships with people having less time generally for clients, partners and colleagues, too distracted by the pull of the screens. Excessive use of IT can harm the wellbeing of both individuals and the organisations. We found instances where employees resigned because they found it too stressful to cope with the learning required to use constantly changing computer applications.

Is there any way out? Perhaps to begin with, employers and organisations just need to step back and assess these potential risks from digitisation, and think more in terms of a “mindful” use of IT, what’s happening, how’s it affecting people and how can there be more of a balance? Organisations have traditionally taken a technical approach, helping their employees use IT “better” or “more” with technical “training” material or sessions.  What’s needed is a set of more wide-ranging and integrated policies developed with the participation of senior leaders from both IT and non-IT functions. For sure they should include technical approaches like dashboards for employees to track and limit their IT us, or auto-security measures such as blocking questionable email attachments. But more importantly they should include non-technical actions such on digital mindfulness such as programmes for educating employees about responsible IT use, making them aware about potential dark side effects, encouraging work-life balance and providing resources and support for dealing with things like technostress.

Monideepa Tarafdar, Professor of Information Systems and Co-Director of the HighWire Doctoral Training Centre, Lancaster University Management School, “The Dark Side of Information Technology”, co-authored with John D’Arcy (University of Delaware), Ofir Turel (California State University) and Ashish Gupta (University of Tennessee) was published in Sloan Management Review, Winter 2015.


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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.