In 1982, Time magazine skipped its annual tradition of naming a “Man of the Year” to instead crown the personal computer as the “Machine of the Year.” The Apple II had been released only a half-decade earlier, and the subsequent introduction of the VisiCalc spreadsheet software in 1979 seemingly all at once convinced the managerial class about the business potential of computers. Soon, IBM released its own PC, which went on to become both widely copied and wildly popular. The journalist who wrote the Time feature noted in his article that he had typed his contribution on a typewriter. By the next year, their newsroom switched to word processors. The revolution in workplace productivity had begun.
At least, this is the simple version of the tale we tell. A closer look at what happened next—and in the decades following—complicates the narrative. We’re used to the idea that new office technologies make us strictly more productive, but the history of workplace tools teaches us that the quest to make common activities more efficient can yield unexpected side effects. This was true of the first PCs, and it likely explains the uneasy relationship we have with a more recent office innovation: email.
Not long after the arrival of the PC, experts began to question the miraculous nature of this suddenly ubiquitous device. In 1991, an article in The New York Times quoted an economist who pointed out that although companies continue to spend heavily on technology, “white-collar productivity has stagnated.” He concludes: “No longer are chief executives confident that throwing computers at their office staffs will result in greater efficiency.”
The data supported these concerns. A study of the years 1987 to 1993, conducted by economists Daniel Sichel and Stephen Oliner, estimated that computer technology contributed at most 0.2 percentage points a year to business output growth, after adjusting for inflation, a period during which overall growth expanded by 1.9 percent a year. A contemporaneous article summarized these findings bluntly: “The impact of computers on recent productivity growth has been vastly overstated.”
In his 1997 book Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner tackles the “productivity paradox” that surrounded the initial introduction of the PC to the office. He points out several explanations, but perhaps the most interesting concerns the disconnect between easy and effective. The computer made certain common activities more efficient, but it also created more overall work to be done. Instead of tasking an accountant to update their paper accounting ledger, business owners might now do it themselves using a digital spreadsheet. In isolation, the spreadsheet is easier than the ledger book, but in practice the business owners now have less time available for other, potentially more valuable activities. “If computers really made it possible for a smaller number of people to accomplish the same amount of work,” Tenner notes, “there would be little outcry about the longer hours for middle managers and professionals.” But of course, this is the opposite of what happened.
Tenner supports the claim that PCs can increase workloads by citing Georgia Tech economist Peter G. Sassone’s fascinating research. In a 1992 paper, Sassone reports on what he found studying the impact of new technology on 20 departments in five major corporations. As he documents, many of these departments fired support staff after the arrival of time-saving computer software made them unnecessary. (There’s no need to maintain a typing pool once you have word processors.) The obvious problem is that the work once conducted by this staff now shifted to the workers they used to support. Though these support staff reductions saved salary costs in the short term, they required hiring more higher-level—and therefore higher-salary—employees in the long term to maintain similar levels of output. After crunching the numbers, Sassone concluded that the introduction of supposedly productivity-boosting tech ended up costing these companies 15 percent more in overall salary expenses.
I’ve thought about these findings frequently during the past five years, as I worked on researching and writing a book titled A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, which is about a more recent revolution in workplace productivity: the arrival of digital communication tools like email and Slack. As with the computer that preceded them, these tools make specific tasks undeniably easier. Who wants to wrangle a fax machine when you can instead send a file attachment?
But at the same time, we feel increasingly overwhelmed and frustrated by the sheer number of hours we now spend engaging in this streamlined back-and-forth messaging. Once we removed the cost and friction from office interactions, the quantity of this chatter skyrocketed. According to various studies I gathered during my research, in 2005, we were sending and receiving 50 emails a day. In 2006 this jumped to 69. By 2011 it was 90. Today we send and receive an estimated 126 messages, checking our inboxes once every 6 minutes on average.
It’s even possible that all of this extra time spent talking about work instead of actually working has created a 21st-century repeat of Tenner’s productivity paradox. In a provocative 2017 article, economist Dan Nixon notes that during the past decade, productivity growth in advanced economies was “persistently weak” during exactly the same period when smartphone shipments increased tenfold. Though he’s quick to admit that there are many confounding factors involved in this observation (including the global financial crisis), it seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done.
The technologist’s response to email overload is to make these tools even faster. Gmail now autocompletes our sentences, saving typing time, while AI filters try to categorize and prioritize messages arriving too quickly for us to keep up with them on our own. But as the history of technology teaches us, making tasks faster does not by itself guarantee that we become more productive. It’s never been easier to send a report to a colleague, but at the same time, it’s never been harder to find the uninterrupted hours necessary to do a good job writing the report in the first place.
My work on this topic has convinced me that when it comes to email, the solution to Tenner’s paradox is for executives and entrepreneurs to look beyond the technology and consider the humans who actually deploy it. We cannot simply throw email addresses and Slack handles at office workers and tell them to rock n’ roll, we need to instead do the hard work of figuring out the best way to integrate these tools into our workflows. There must be ways to collaborate that don’t require sending and receiving 126 messages a day. In software development, for example, it’s common for teams to use highly structured agile project management methodologies, like Scrum, in which shared task boards and short daily status meetings greatly reduce the need for unstructured digital chatter to figure out who is working on what, but similar commitments to better processes are rare in other types of knowledge work. And in this current moment of pandemic-induced remote work, in which our communication has become even more hyperactive and exhausting, the urgency of figuring out better ways to collaborate has only increased.
We must accept that these better methods will not emerge spontaneously. We have to instead seek them out, put them in writing, experiment to get things right, and be willing to put up with some of the inconveniences and loss of flexibility these efforts might create. All of this, of course, is harder than simply waiting for engineers to build even faster email clients. But ultimately, it’s the only way to ensure that continued innovations in workplace communication can improve rather than hold back our ability to make progress on the things that matter.
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