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Rob Ryan | The State of the Modern Employee Experience
Employee Experience
Digital Friction

Rob Ryan | The State of the Modern Employee Experience

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10 minutes read time
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Published on Sep 6th, 2023
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Written by Rob Ryan

Today’s workforce faces a peculiar dilemma. Employees are better equipped with resources and tools than ever before, but they struggle against a tide of digital friction. In this episode of In this episode of The Workgrid podcast, host Rob Ryan covers The State of the Modern Employee Experience report from Workgrid Software and ReWorked, including the report details, an overview of the types of digital friction, and a deep dive into root causes. Also discussed are the specific challenges these “solutions” create for managers and their teams, and the opportunities available to digital workplace leaders looking to improve the employee experience in a digitally-driven environment.

Before we dive into the State of the Modern Employee Experience Report, let’s begin with unpacking digital friction. At its core, digital friction refers to the factors that inhibit the easy use of digital technology. Digital friction is a concept that has been discussed for well over thirty years and is not a new phenomenon. Gartner defines digital friction as “the unnecessary effort an employee has to exert or use to get data or technology to work.” However, this definition only scratches the surface. As digital friction encompasses so much more, and the downstream impact of said friction in the workplace ultimately manifests as waste, impacting productivity, the employee experience, and the organization’s bottom line.

So, if digital friction is ultimately waste, where does it come from?

Well, it comes from a few different factors. 

  1. Application overload – all the places to go, your applications, resources, and portals 

  2. Information overload – all the stuff that we sift through and need throughout the day, the content, conversations, data, and workflows we have to filter through to ultimately find and use within the course of our day 

  3. Digital noise pollution – the pings, dings, and disruptions both internally and externally to the employee, things that are distracting them and ripping them away from their time and their focus. 

These three factors end up hindering the employee's overall productivity and ability to stay on the right task, impeding them making the right and proper decisions. In essence, digital friction is a collection of waste and roadblocks, a waiting period of wasted effort and misdirection. All of this adds up and contributes to a work day that ends up being full of unnecessary challenges. 

The State of the Modern Employee Experience Survey 

A bit about this report: It is informed by 530 respondents, all of whom perform professional desk, clerical, managerial, or administrative labor. The organizations range in size from 250 to well over 10,000 employees, with 60% of the organizations and respondents sitting within 3,000 or more employees. It also represents a variety of industries including software, information services, data processing, FINSERV, insurance, manufacturing, banking, healthcare and so much more. 

Managers and Employees are using more tools and applications than ever before 

66% of respondents in this report said that they are using more applications than before the onset of the pandemic. I suppose that’s logical, when the pandemic arose it was natural for us to try to solve the challenge of a disconnected workforce with new tools to connect and collaborate.

Over 26% of respondents report that they are using 10 or more applications per day. And in fact, in a recent study from the Harvard Business Review late last year, titled “How Much Time and Energy Do We Waste Toggling Between Applications,” showed that workers performing certain transactions had to context switch over 22 different applications and web properties throughout the day. That’s a lot of time wasted. The actual context switching, alt tabbing, and switching from screen to screen? Well, that moves upwards to 3600 times on an average day.

What’s not mentioned is there is really a toggling tax here. That’s the mental cost that occurs when an individual switches their focus from one task to another task. This concept is particularly relevant in the workplace because employees are often juggling multiple tasks at any given time. When an individual switches from one task to another, the brain needs time to adjust to that new context. That adjustment period can lead to a decrease in productivity and efficiency, where the brain effectively has to reset itself to focus on that new task. Thus, the toggling tax. 

The impact of this tax can be quite significant. In fact, frequent context switching can lead to increased stress. If you are constantly shifting focus time and again, there is a sense of pressure and urgency that can lead to increased stress overall to the individual, and downstream effects to their overall wellness. There is of course increased anxiety. The uncertainty and constant change associated with frequent context switching leads to heightened anxiety that leaves employees worrying and feeling like their tasks are left inefficient and ineffective. There’s also naturally decreased productivity with context switching rapidly over the course of the day. If the brain needs time to adjust, and we need time to switch tasks, well, we’re inevitably going to have to waste time going about that switch.  It certainly decreases the quality of work. If we are constantly bouncing around and moving back and forth, we are having to adjust to the new tasks, the new paradigm, the new model of process, and then quality may suffer and slip between those breaks. Mistakes can be made. Details overlooked. 

With all that, what potentially happens is burnout. Overtime if there is constant stress, pressure, and errors, then that leads to decreased satisfaction in one's role and potentially higher turnover rates. 

Finding information at work is difficult

More than 25% of in-office workers claimed finding information was difficult and when evaluated among remote workers, that number jumped to 30%. So, we must wonder, is the difference here due to the ability to simply pop your head up over a desk and ask your colleague where information may be? Typically, when a search fails, we end up asking those closest to use or near us where the information is. 

There’s also frustration with collaboration tools as the report shows. 44% of respondents say collaboration tools given to them within their organization end up frustrating them, with 41% claiming they are difficult to use. Despite these challenges, there is a certain level of complacency with solutions.  Which makes us wonder, is this due to the learned helplessness and the status quo of feeling that the digital workplace is actually impossible to change?  

There is room for improvement within the digital workplace experience 

Nearly 70% of respondents believe there is room for improvement within their digital workplace, but most do not know how that change can come about. Like the HBR study, there is a report from Okta, the Business at Work report, which takes a look at data from Okta’s more than four thousand customers. Some of the results here are quite staggering in terms of application overload. The report finds that businesses will deploy on average over 88 apps at their organization. We have to wonder, how many of those apps are known? And what are the actual connections to Okta? How many of these are back-end and not seen at all? Regardless, it’s quite alarming to see 88 apps as a whole.

What gets even more interesting with this report is that larger companies are showing more than 175 applications and smaller companies around 73. The managers surveyed within the report said they spend most of their time on messaging and communications apps followed by collaboration apps and role specific applications. Applications that are supposed to make our lives easier, more productive, and more engaged. 

Digital friction is nearly universal 

As employees accept the application tools that they are told to work with, it ultimately isn’t making their jobs easier. In fact, 96% of respondents claim that they are experiencing digital friction to some degree. We must ask ourselves, why is that the case? Part of it has to do with the culture and landscape in which they are operating in.

Reason One: Learned Helplessness

The first reason for digital friction, the elephant in the room at any organization, is learned helplessness. If you think about it, when an employee steps first into their new role what are they given? They’re given a laptop, their credentials, their ID, and they are probably directed toward the places that have already been established to communicate, collaborate, and connect. Oftentimes, that digital landscape has been poorly rationalized and has become a collection of applications that has grown over time with the lack of a digital workplace leader.

So, the cow path has been paved for the employee. They follow those tracks of where to perform tasks, operations, and work. They are not going to raise their hand or make a fuss because this is the way they’re told to work. They’re not going to push back against the system that has been established for their work patterning. 

Reason Two: The Myth of Multitasking

Digital friction also persists in the workplace due to the myth of multitasking. Hopefully by know by now that multitasking is a fabrication. The analogy I oftentimes use is that yes, you can absolutely chew bubblegum, listen to a podcast, and mow a lawn all at the same time. But when that cognitive load becomes too high, performance begins to degrade rapidly. In fact, what multitasking is, is rapid switching from one task to another and back again. So instead of completing a monotask, which may be focused on one thing, like simply mowing the lawn or listening to that podcast, every time you make that switch, it’s going to be a task on time, energy, and focus.

In fact, research from the mid-nineties by Robert Rogers, Ph.D. and Stephen Monsell, found that even when people had to switch predictably between 2 to 4 tasks between trials, they were slower on that task switch than on task repeated trials. Time and again, studies over the last thirty years have begun to show that employees as a whole and individuals are better when they are focused on one track and one process. That’s not to say that people can’t have multiple projects at one time, but they are certainly better suited if they’re focusing on only one of those at any given time.  

Reason Three: Nobody’s Job

Another reason why digital friction persists is that it’s no one’s job to solve it. There is the role of digital workplace leader, which has been emerging over the last ten years, but it is not common. That leader who can reach across the aisle between the business and IT to form a vision of the way to work, and how to work, and begin to optimize the employee experience with technology and culture? Well, those people are quite rare. They often arise from one business function in more novel organizations that understand the need to create a better experience for their employees and their end users.

Why is that the case? Well, the resistance here is the natural siloes and politics which happen within organizations. HR has their focus. Corporate communications have theirs. IT has its role to perform. And oftentimes these are competing priorities without a central line and central vision. 

Reason Four: Vendor Centric View 

There’s oftentimes a vendor centric view of the world that defines how they develop their technology and how they’re going to focus their R&D efforts. That means for them to express their value they have to have you using their platform and their product. So, what does this mean? It means that integrations are not always going to be top of mind. They want you in their product to showcase the value of their platform to you. They are less focused on the personas of your employees and more focused on the utilization of whatever they measure their KPIs. That of course leads to effectively what they focus on and their roadmap. This has to be kept in mind for those digital workplace leaders and application owners who are looking to create a better view of the work day. 

Email is a productivity blocker 

Respondents called email out as the number one complaint. Managers seemed to highlight that their personal productivity blockers are: 

  1. Email 

  2. Too many pings and dings 

  3. Colleague interruptions 

The complaints from staff are as follows: 

  1. Email 

  2. Inefficient systems 

  3. Inability to find information at the right time 

Email has long been the primary form of communication that most professional workers use, but this could be changing. The report found that email still reigns supreme as the preferred means of finding information and collaborating, but it’s losing its supremacy to other tools within a hybrid environment. 85% of respondents listed it as a tool they used, followed by Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet, all rising to meet the needs of a highly distributed workforce.  However, when the question was asked “what is your preferred way of receiving information?” 55% said that they prefer email to receiving information from other employees or teams. Among the groups that were more likely to prefer email were those in small organizations and those working in a fully corporate office.  

When the question was asked “how do you prefer to receive notifications from enterprise systems?” (which could be a nudge from a system highlighting a compliance survey, training that needs to be done, expense review, etc.) half the respondents said they prefer to receive these notifications by email. The other half reported that those could be pushed elsewhere to their computer throughout the workday. There is a change here in terms of the preferences and the way employees wish to collaborate, communicate, and engage within the way they work, slowly moving away from email into new paradigms in which to operate.

Digging a bit deeper, one of the questions we asked was “do you feel the applications and technology you use often get in the way of you and your team being more productive?” The results were interesting. 

60% of managers at midsize companies said that digital friction was experienced constantly and getting in the way of their team. This was among the highest percentage out of all groups surveyed. Managers as a whole feel that technology is having a negative impact on their work, their team, and certainly how they operate.  

73% of respondents said the applications and technology they use gets in the way of their productivity. Managers at midsize or smaller companies were more likely to feel this way than those at larger companies which sat at only 56%. 


As we wrap up, we have to take a moment to reflect on some of the key points. Digital friction, the challenges, and the inefficiencies employees face using digital tools is significant and is a growing issue. The overwhelming amount of information combined with the need to constantly switch between tools and systems is going to lead to frustration, a lack of focus, and disengagement. Of course this threatens productivity but also risks exacerbating attrition within an already interesting labor market.  

There is a silver lining here though. If managers are recognizing the need for improvement, and the introduction of more technology during the pandemic helped to accelerate our use of tools, well it’s also opened the possibilities for us of working in new or better ways. These new technologies have enhanced productivity and collaboration, new paradigms of working, but there's a need for those to be more integrated and efficient in the overall digital experience defined by the personas of the organization. A key part we shouldn’t miss – with this new opportunity comes the potential to reshape what the employee experience looks like for the individual.  

Midsize organizations in particular are faced with the need to act. Per the study data, larger organizations seem better equipped with the tools needed, perhaps attributed to higher role specialization. Smaller companies appear to be struggling, which could be due to limited resources or lack of role specialization. But regardless of size, all employees should have the option to create deep and meaningful engagement with work – whether that’s communicating, collaborating, or engaging with back-end systems. 

The key here for digital workplace leaders is to recognize the importance of investing in the overall digital employee experience, a strategic approach to the digital workplace really comes from the companies that choose relevant solutions and embed those to a vision and their culture, creating it inline to the personas in their organization. 

Remember, the digital workplace isn’t just about technology. It’s about people. It’s about creating an environment where employees will thrive and do their best work. So, let’s continue to innovate and strive for that better workplace experience. 

This blog was adapted from The Workgrid, a podcast about the digital workplace, technology, and everything in between. For the complete episode, please visit: The State of the Modern Employee Experience

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