The massive leap to mobile has created infinite opportunities for workers to be more productive. People can work from anywhere, have instant communication with whomever they choose around the world, and be "on" whenever they want to. Companies have taken notice and are enthusiastic at the prospect of having access to a crew of employees who can contribute, share, and collaborate via mobile—including after office hours.
However, for all the enthusiasm surrounding this new model for efficiency, our fast leap to mobile has come at an ironic cost—it has produced a new kind of productivity gap.
As the world has swung to working on the go, the available tools haven’t adjusted along with it. In addition, we as humans have not figured out how to fine-tune our personal habits and predilections to this new style of working. As a result, the workday has expanded, and this constant connectivity has created a whole new set of stresses that we’re not equipped to handle, including strained relationships, frazzled attention spans, incessant notifications, and an unsteady work-life balance.
The productivity gap is the chasm between all the information we can access on our phones, and the limits on using that information in an effective way.
- It’s the gap between getting a request for a big document, and easily being able to find and send it.
- It’s the gap between receiving a text about your availability for a meeting, and being able to check that availability without tapping and scrolling 20 times.
- It’s the gap between learning on Twitter that your competitor just brought on an important new customer, and being able to put together an effective response with your own team.
The productivity gap is the state of being hamstrung by the constraints of your device. You know what you need to do, but you can’t accomplish it—or can do so only very slowly and rather clumsily—with your smartphone.
Mobile creates connectivity. A Gallup poll from 2014 finds that seven in 10 adults in the U.S. use a smartphone or a tablet to access the Internet. Meanwhile, a Pew report from this year shows one-third of mobile owners access the Internet primarily from their phone, and over half of all emails are now opened first on a mobile device. But being constantly connected presents its own set of challenges, and one of them is that smartphones don’t necessarily provide all the tools we require to accomplish actual work.
To understand this shortcoming, compare content creation and consumption on mobile. It’s easy to consume content—read emails or scan headlines—on a mobile device. It’s much harder to craft an eloquent communique, calculate profits and losses, or code and test smartphone apps. While mobile devices can connect us to people and to information, they don’t always connect us to all the tools we need to be as productive as we want to be. But that’s starting to change.
Closing the productivity gap begins with a paradigm shift—we need to abandon the notion that the way we do work on mobile should look or feel exactly like the way we do work on a desktop computer or laptop. The mobile interface and the optimal way to use it have very little in common with the desktop interface and its uses. The faster we accept this reality, the more quickly we can begin to evolve a new understanding of how to use our mobile working hours more efficiently and effectively.
We also need to stop using mobile as a consumption-only channel, and start creating content on it. Whether that means writing short but effective emails, creating tasks in the right to-do list app, or sending calendar invites on mobile, any action taken on mobile is one that doesn't have to happen later on the desktop. It’s much too easy to get in the habit of checking email on mobile and feeling like that equals being productive. Merely checking email doesn’t get work done, and it’s time to stop acting like it does. Instead, we need to start working actively on mobile devices.
Being productive on mobile requires the right tools. A mobile device may never be the best way to write the Great American Novel or coding the next hit app. Not for a while, at least. But we can get a lot done on mobile with just a few key capabilities.
The first is easy access to all the information we need. This means that it should be a breeze to find someone’s complete contact information or share our own availability without having to open and close several different apps to access the details we need. Even if the information you are looking for is buried somewhere in your email platform; good luck finding it quickly. Accessing information shouldn’t require a lot of typing and hunting, and it shouldn’t be necessary to close, open, and search in multiple apps to complete a single simple task.
Along with better access to information, we need apps that integrate key functionality to close the productivity gap. A good example of integration done right is the phone app, which cleverly integrates contact information with the ability to dial a number. Just imagine if it was necessary to close the phone app to look up a number every time you wanted to contact someone. That’s how siloed our calendar, document, and email apps are right now, and that’s why it can be so hard to do something as basic as schedule a meeting or share a file on mobile.
We have the tendency to fetishize productivity, and the idea that we can get great work done anytime, anywhere is an alluring prospect that plays into this theme. Realistically, as far as our tools and our practices are concerned, we have not gotten there yet. This discrepancy between our ideals and the actual results, and the difficulty of the journey is the source of a lot of frustration and stress. To find relief, we need to adjust what it means to be productive, but also refrain from being content with merely consuming content on mobile.
Now that mobile is firmly entrenched in many people’s working lives, the typical 9-to-5 looks like a relic of a bygone era. But that does not mean we have to sacrifice our sanity or work quality to keep up with this new rhythm. Adapting our expectations and shifting the way we use our devices will ease the unnecessary stress associated with the work we try to get done using our smartphones. We can start by holding ourselves accountable for being productive on mobile—and holding our apps accountable for helping us do that.
—Javier Soltero is CEO of Acompli , a company focused on improving how the world works through mobile email.