Technological progress gave us automated machinery, assembly lines, and the ability to communicate in real-time with anyone in the world. But, it goes without saying that technology is also a huge source of distraction, a potential time-waster. Where productivity goes to die.

In the era of Fruit Ninja and Facebook, is it still possible for technology to contribute to workplace productivity? This question continues to interest researchers and economists who closely examine productivity metrics. As our communities and cities turn ‘smart’ and grow increasingly connected, the task of understanding the complex relationship between technology and productivity will only grow in importance.

Back in 2013, the Pew Research Center surveyed a representative sample of adult internet users about the role of digital technology in their workplace and professional lives. Here are the key findings of that study:

Email and the internet are deemed the most important communications and information tools among online workers.

Among the sample of employed adults who were surveyed, email and the internet were particularly important to those who work “white collar” jobs, such as office-based executives and managers, business owners, lawyers, and journalists. And for more than half of those adults who occasionally work remotely, an internet connection was a necessity for them to do their job.

What is potentially surprising about the Pew Research findings:

Despite constantly evolving forms of digital communication and social media–as well as potential cyber threats like hacking and data leaks–and alarmist warnings about lost productivity and inefficient communication, email continues to dominate. When it comes to workplace communication, email reigns supreme as the most-used artery of communication, and the majority of American workers rely on email to do their jobs.

It is worth mentioning that the importance of email, according to the Pew Research survey, is felt most acutely by professionals who work in offices. 

The study’s findings are less applicable to “blue collar” workers whose jobs are not office-based.


Notably, there are experts who challenge that observation about email’s relevance in different lines of work. As a 2014 special report published by The Economist points out, “opportunities to make service-sector workers more productive may be found in other fields…Machine intelligence could aid diagnosis, allowing a given doctor or nurse to diagnose more patients more effectively at lower cost. The use of mobile technology to monitor chronically ill patients at home” could also optimize care by saving time and money.

Greater consideration of technology’s role in the workplace, and particularly its influence on productivity, certainly cannot hurt. Here’s my take: technology can be extremely useful in the workplace, but managers need to scrutinize the ways in which technology is employed. “Technology can have enormous benefits in the workplace,” says Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain & Company, in an article for Harvard Business Review. “But it’s fair to ask whether we have reached the point of diminishing returns in some areas.”