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Four work tools that have outlived their value

Written 17 December, 2018, 4 minutes to read

Hey, remember fax machines? And pagers? And punched tape? There was a time when all these ungainly mechanisms were a necessity for every office, but they’ve since been relegated to our technological waste bin. In this overwhelming age of innovation – as we swap analogue for digital and drift into the cloud – there seems no end to the office tools and tropes that will soon join the above deceased technologies on the scrapheap pile (or in the collector’s cupboard). Here are four still-existent work tools that have outlived their value that we think will go next.

Email

No matter how useful it is in the wider world, work email is fast becoming redundant. Few things strike dread like the thought of your inbox after 10 days away, but even if you stay on top of your email it’s still a soul-destroyingly inefficient means of communication.

Email is demanding in ways other forms of communication just aren’t. Because work emails are invariably full of requests and queries, knowing that we have a ton of them to reply to creates cognitive exhaustion – before you even start. Paradoxically, because email is instant, we also feel we’re expected to reply instantly, too.

It’s also ridiculously messy and unnecessarily formal. While tools like Slack go some way to solve this, they still repeat some of the same problems – just catching up and finding information between threads can be a lengthy process. Messages take on the form of full, meaty letters, so it’s easy to get too fixated on tone and hide key details in a swamp of text. Then there are subject lines and mailing lists to deal with; too many people still don’t seem to grasp the difference between “TO” and “CC” – and don’t get us started on people who always “REPLY ALL”.

It’s all too easy to forget that on the other side of the email is a human being requesting connection. Because we treat email as just another difficult task we need to cross off our ‘to do’ list, the human element of it has been lost. What should be the means for smooth collaboration, has become a heavy administrative task that saps us our productive energy.

Time clocks

If anything trumps the fear of “473 unread emails”, it’s having to log your hours. Time clocks have a reputation for being fiddly and aggravating, and historically they’ve had very few benefits. As well as making us feel like we’re being spied on, they maintain a one-way power flow which has a detrimental effect on company culture and creates an edgy, suspicious workplace environment.

But we’re not done yet! Time clocks also rely on manual input, making them a highly inappropriate tools for a task requiring empirical accuracy. They interrupt your work, requiring you to start and stop timers and note down what you’ve been up to. It’s unnatural and it’s unproductive. You might come away with a log of your hours, but most likely you’ve learned nothing useful about your actual day or the ways that you work.

Thankfully, some time tracking apps have gone a huge way to solving this outdated tool; namely by completely automating it. AI-powered tracking tools like Timely set a new precedent for how time clocks should be; they run seamlessly in the background to track everything you work on for you, recording how long you spend on each task and where you get distracted. It’s even able to embrace the flexibility of modern work, tracking GPS location and mobile calls for work on-the-go. So the successor technology is there; the rest of the world just needs to let go of manual time tracking.

(Some) meetings

“Let’s just pop into the meeting room for a quick catch up.” If you work in an office, chances are you’ll have heard a phrase like this – probably far too frequently than you should. Meetings often occur because of routine rather than developmental demand. Some are check-ins, some are stand-ups, some are team building exercises, some are for strategic planning, but in the US, 11 million meetings are organized every day – and 63% of these don’t even have an agenda, while 33.4% feel unproductive.

Whatever their ‘cause’, meetings are seldom as useful as people think – and the net productive loss as a result of gathering your whole workforce together is astounding. As well as being a drain on time, meetings also negatively effect employees; people often wonder why they needed to attend, leaving frustrated or quietened at not being able to contribute anything productive.

People are slowly realizing that many issues are best dealt with in other ways – that work collaboration tools like Basecamp and Slack can suffice. In order to fully shake our weird obligation to meetings, we need to constantly question whether they are the most effective and efficient method available for our specific problem solving.

Physical offices

While office work looks like it’s here to stay, real, physical offices, with walls and floors and – shudder – cubicles are on their way out. The rise of technology and cloud-based software means that people are increasingly working from home or collaborative workspaces – and as more and more people start working remotely, physical office space will start outliving its value.

Why have a conference room if you can call in on a conference line? Why quench your thirst at the water cooler when you can do it from your local coffee shop? From an employer’s perspective, phasing out real offices is hugely advantageous, too; aside from enhanced efficiency and improved morale, the financial savings are nothing to sniff at. Where you once needed filing cabinets and supplies to run a successful business, these days a simple workspace and laptop is enough to do the job. And you can source the best talent and support their lifestyles in the process.

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