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How social media in the workplace could be deleting our productivity

By Richard Ramsey

Published 27/10/2015

'Because of social media, email and smartphones, our brains are busier than ever, as we are continually assaulted with news, facts, chatter and other updates'
'Because of social media, email and smartphones, our brains are busier than ever, as we are continually assaulted with news, facts, chatter and other updates'

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

The last five years 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 faster. 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 in seconds large files that would have previously taken hours, access and edit documents on smart devices, and use connectivity like 4G to stay in touch on the go.

But while technological change has continued apace, 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 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 technological progress that there has been to improve productivity - particularly within the public sector - and the extent to which more recent developments might actually be holding us back.

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 multi-taskers, interrupting them from duties that can take time to get back into.

This can also impact on wellbeing, with the study finding that those who have a lot of interruptions have "higher levels of techno-stress and lower happiness".

This is perhaps why Volkswagen announced servers would stop sending emails 30 minutes after the end of employees' shifts, and only start again half an hour before people return 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, as we are continually assaulted with news, 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 adds: "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 because of our smart devices, but we are 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. They are in the pockets of nearly two-thirds adults here, 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 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 the highest of the four UK nations.

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

Interestingly, LinkedIn usage here is 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, while 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. People here are less likely to do so than people elsewhere in the UK.

This raises the question as to whether, in an era when cost-savings in the public sector are very much to the fore, government here is doing enough to maximise digital rather than more costly face-to-face interaction? Are Northern Ireland 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.

In next week's Economy Watch in our Business Telegraph Food Special, we hear from Danske Bank chief economist Angela McGowan

Belfast Telegraph

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