Our work has broken down. What now?

The hope was once that computers would help humanity work more efficiently and smarter. But it turned out very differently. Because we have also started to work more efficiently and smarter? No, on the contrary. We do not work less, computers (and smartphones) have actually contributed to us working more and more. And it has not led to a correspondingly higher labor productivity.

According to Martijn Aslander, co-author of the book ‘Digital Fitness’, this is even more problematic if we consider that an increasing percentage of the working population is engaged in knowledge work day in and day out. ‘Yet we have never clearly agreed with each other what exactly we mean by knowledge work and how we can do it in a smart way.’ Aslander is one of the speakers at the new IT trade fair TBX, which takes place on 3 and 4 November in Jaarbeurs Utrecht.

knowledge workers


Curious about the five pillars of digital fitness and how they affect both organization and people? Then visit www.digitalefitheid.nl or come to Martijn Aslanders keynote on TBX on 4 November 2021 at 11.00.

More information: https://www.tbxevent.nl/

The author assumes that if someone spends at least four to five hours a day in front of a computer, this meets the definition of ‘knowledge worker’. “For knowledge workers, their computer is not a well-functioning tool that stands at their service, but that they themselves have fallen into slavery by the same computer. They have developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome in the work with screens. The computer demands our attention, focus and the cognitive part of our brain, and meanwhile we drown in the information. ‘

The great thing, Aslander says, is that organizations have spent decades investing in ever-newer information technology; but the knowledge workers’ view of (quickly finding) the right information has only been further obscured. According to him, it does not offer the expected bridge between people and ideas, but has proven to be an expanding obstacle.

Information is forgotten

According to Aslander, there are several reasons for this. ‘With the IT solutions, we have forgotten one thing: the focus is too much on technology and too little on the demands that knowledge workers make on information. This is because we have housed our online information capital in an office environment that is still largely based on that of the 1970s. Within many organizations, there is no good information awareness, no vision for information. Information is not smartly organized, but still presented in a very document-centric way. ‘

The problem is that top management in most organizations is not aware of the possibilities of technology. Aslander: ‘They have outsourced the thinking of IT decisions to one technology manager or data manager. Not only management teams, but also supervisors, HR professionals and collaboration committees assume that everything that has to do with technology belongs to the IT department. While in practice it is mainly about security, arranging backups and replacing equipment and software. It gives a too narrow base. Technology is not conscious on top management radar. Painful because they are the ones dealing with budgets and technology choices. ‘

Constantly harassed

“Distraction is at the expense of our productivity, creativity and health”

According to Aslander, another factor is that knowledge workers are increasingly being harassed by emails, notifications and other pop-up messages that repeatedly disrupt their concentration. “In the meantime, they are less and less able to get to the essential core of their work, the distinctive mindset for which they were once employed. The distraction is at the expense of our productivity, creativity and ultimately health. ‘

Although we increasingly work in self-directed teams and other horizontal working relationships, many employees are used to looking at a boss as normal. Listening to messages and signals from the group to which they belong. According to him, they are governed by old mechanisms: ‘You can not easily ignore a message from society, especially from your boss. The more often you are disturbed as a knowledge worker with questions and comments, the greater the chance that you will no longer be able to perform your actual work at all. The brain must rest regularly, a stressed chicken does not lay eggs’.

Lack of digital fitness

A third aspect is the function of employees: most lack digital fitness, a concept that Aslander divides into five pillars. These columns are discussed in the keynote that Aslander provides on TBX (see teaser). How do you improve your digital fitness? “For example, let employees make good agreements at team level about when they can best use which digital work tools, for what and in what way. Preferably on the basis of unanimity. And check regularly for new, better digital tools on the market. Have a meaningful conversation about this in the team every month and create a digital work manifesto. With the increasing rate of change, it is smart not to cast anything in concrete, but to go for temporary solutions that are easy to adapt and improve. In this regard, we can learn from programmers who refer to the open development phase of their programs as a ‘state of permanent beta’. ‘

The wrong or limited use of our digital work tools, combined with the proliferation of emails, notifications and other distractions, has, according to Aslander, overwhelmed our minds. “But you do not dare to talk about it in organizations, so the attention and budgets go to the wrong approach to the consequences. It is high time to break this taboo, because the fact that information and communication flows are increasingly faltering in practice has far-reaching consequences. Knowledge workers suffer from work stress, are more likely to suffer from burnout and are less and less happy to open their laptop at the beginning of their work day. We suffer from an overload of information that is not adequately filtered. In the long run, it is dangerous and expensive: knowledge workers drop out temporarily or permanently. ‘

digital ignorance

Another factor that can stand in the way of digital fitness is that most knowledge workers, from top to bottom, are basically afraid of their computers. They feel uncomfortable at the thought of spending a large part of the day with a tool that they do not understand the possibilities of. They are ashamed of it, so they dare not ask colleagues for digital help. In practice, many knowledge workers use only their computers as a glorified typewriter, leaving most of their potential untapped. So they continue to work the same way they did in the 1970s.

According to Aslander, knowledge workers not only have to work to refresh their digital skills and knowledge, but it is also an important task for both rope holders and HR – who often lack the necessary digital skills. “In practice, they all too quickly assume that their employees or colleagues are in control of their digital work tools. It’s a utopia. And then any arbitrary digitization project will be doomed to fail. ‘

The role of leaders is crucial

Aslander therefore concludes: our work has broken down. “We are simply reacting to that, we are just working even harder. We are going to email even more and therefore cause more noise. Mail is increasingly being misused to primarily send documents back and forth; it is basically a symptom that we have never really thought about what knowledge work is and how to do it. We should talk about the human side of digitalisation. People who work hard get tired and have poor communication skills. The role of managers is crucial here: For example, do not bother team members too much because employees want task autonomy; the more pressure it comes under, the greater the chance of a burnout. ‘

When Aslander focuses on how things really work in organizations, he unfortunately has to conclude that the task autonomy of knowledge workers is all too often bizarrely low. “Even if leaders do not see it that way; or they do not want to see it because they are afraid that the ‘delegation’ of autonomy will happen at the expense of their own influence and position of power. Aside from the work-related stress that this directly causes for knowledge workers, managers should not forget that they are better at managing workflows than people. Because that’s where the real problem lies. ‘

Corona crisis

Martin Aslander. Photo: Daniel Maissan

What is the impact of the corona crisis on all this? Teleworking has become commonplace due to the corona virus. Many employees no longer want to do anything different, or they want to move towards a hybrid model where they spend at most part of their working time in the office.

According to Aslander, executives and executives should examine how best to implement remote management. “It can be difficult for them, because then they have to focus primarily on trust instead of control. In addition war for talent up again as the global economy picks up and more and more job openings remain open for longer. Then you better respond to the talents ‘desire to work (more) at a distance.’

This article originally appeared in Computable magazine # 05/21.

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