kaboompics / Pixabay

In our personal lives, many of us are ready and willing to adopt useful new technologies. We update friends and share photos on a wide range of apps and platforms, across a whole array of interconnected devices. So why do so many of us still fall back on emails and paper documents in the office?

One reason, of course, is that we’re required to. Workplace policies often not only fall short of enabling the adoption of new technology, but actively discourage it – sometimes due to concerns about the security of new apps and devices. But another, subtler reason is that we’re under pressure to succeed in our jobs, which doesn’t give us much time to learn new platforms or adopt innovative tools—no matter how effectively they might work.

To bridge this gap—the workplace technology gap between the apps and platforms we use in our free time and the tools we use at work—we need to advocate for the measurable benefits of modern technologies. But, at the same time, any new tools we introduce need to “just work” in the workplace, as we expect them to in our personal lives.

Here’s how these factors are interweaving right now.

“If it just works, don’t fix it”

I once asked my friend whether his kids still use email, or if they communicate strictly on other social media. His 19-year-old daughter told us, “Oh sure, I still use email. I use it to communicate with adults.” The gap here doesn’t yawn quite as wide as she makes it sound. After all, many of us “adults” also use Facebook messenger, FaceTime, and other newer platforms. Still, she’s absolutely right that in professional communication, most of us default to email.

In the same way, many millennial workers prefer to collaborate on documents in the cloud instead of attaching them to emails the old-fashioned way, but workplace policies often hold them back from using the tools they know are better for the job. And to some degree, this is indeed the fault of us “older people.” We talk the talk of a 100 percent digital workplace, but we weren’t raised in a 100 percent digital world the way our younger colleagues were. Unlike digital natives, our intuition tells us that paper and email are more reliable—but that intuition weighs us down.

Sometimes this reliance on outdated tools reaches into the realm of the truly ridiculous, like at a company I worked with that insisted on printing out thousands of PDF forms on paper, signing them, then scanning them back into the digital system. But it often plays out in subtler ways. For example, many of us still have to deal with huge email chains (including people who “CC all” by accident), even though a collaborative chat platform might help us accomplish the same task much more smoothly.

But as limiting as this reliance on old paradigms can be, it isn’t always unjustified. After all, paper and email “just work.” Nobody has to learn how to use them or wonder whether they have the capabilities we need. In business, we often have an incentive not to change, for the simple reason that change is inherently risky, and the mitigation of risk is a major aspect of our jobs.

From hard work to “just working”

In our personal lives, there’s little downside to experimenting with new platforms and tools. Unless there’s a major security breach or similar disaster, the worst that can really happen is that we don’t like the interface, or can’t figure out how to get the app to do what we want, so we delete it (maybe after a small loss of capital) and move onto a different one.

In business, on the other hand, this attitude can be a recipe for disaster. As Jeff Bezos famously said, it’s normal for a startup to expect to fail, and all businesses are under pressure to remain agile and adaptive. In fact, it’s that very pressure that means we have thin margins for experimenting with new tools that might cost too much time or capital, or result in the failure of a new initiative.

When I go into a meeting to present a new tactic, I can’t really say, “I’ve got some ideas, and some of them might succeed. Let’s try them and see which ones work.” As a leader responsible for my team, I have to speak with conviction: “We’ve run the numbers, and I believe this tactic will succeed.” In other words, a competitive business environment makes it hard to just say, “Let’s try this and see what happens.”

Yet, at the same time, the developers of new platforms have a mirror-image responsibility to the businesses they target: their tools need to come packaged with as little risk as possible. This doesn’t just mean security against data breaches. New platforms for business collaboration need to “just work,” as seamlessly and instantly as we expect our personal apps and devices to do.

In business, we often don’t have time to adapt to a new user interface or a completely different workflow, no matter how objectively beneficial it might be. Right out of the gate, a new platform or tool needs to integrate smoothly into our existing processes. As the tool demonstrates its usefulness, we’ll more naturally default to it—just as many of us default to email today.

For developers of new technologies, and for those of us who advocate for their adoption in the workplace, the core challenge is to bridge the gap between the tools we use in our everyday personal lives and those we rely on at work. In fact, this gap presents a tremendous opportunity: as artificial intelligence and machine learning make our software better able to anticipate our needs, our work platforms will become more adaptive to the ways we communicate, rather than the other way around.

In our free time, we’re already accustomed to using devices and apps that use machine learning to recommend new songs, plan our workout routines, and even choose the right foods for healthy meals. It won’t be long before our workplace technologies use similar artificial intelligence approaches to recommend presentation templates, plan our meeting schedules, and choose the right wording for proposal letters.

As tools like these become the norm at work, adopting intuitive new platforms won’t feel like a chore; it will become a necessity.