At Litera Microsystems, we talk a lot about using technology to save time. Just recently, we’ve blogged about how much time modern word processing saves lawyers in drafting documents, how technology saves time in scientific writing, and how technology can help all of us achieve a better work-life balance.
But are we really saving time with technology? And, if so, what are we saving time for?
What Computers and Automation Promised
There are still plenty of lawyers around who are, shall we say, experienced enough to remember drafting documents on typewriters. Word processors offered real time savings, as lawyers could copy and paste text rather than retype it. Similarly, fax machines made communication quick—at least until email came along!
This expectation that technology would save time and make tasks easier went well beyond the work world. Transportation has grown faster and more accessible than ever: cross-country and intercontinental flights are commonplace and relatively inexpensive (and that’s before we even get into autonomous vehicles). With the advent of email and then mobile phones, communication is now immediate and effortless. Household chores are constantly being streamlined, first from washing machines for laundry and the advent of the vacuum cleaner, and now on to robotic laundry-folding machines and Roombas.
All of these innovations were supposed to give us free time for leisure activities and recreation. John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by 2029, people would only have to work about 15 hours per week to maintain a reasonable standard of living.
Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly what’s happened.
What Technology Has Actually Delivered
Many—maybe even most—employees instead work more than ever or at least feel like they do. Especially in the U.S., knowledge workers typically work at least 40 hours per week, with about a third of managers and legal professionals working at least 45 hours per week.
One writer suggested that Keynes was “partly right,” in that people are working 16 productive hours per week. But those workers are spending another 20 or more hours “supporting the monstrous extra informational, bureaucratic and administrative burden made possible by new technology.” While productivity apps and time-saving technology help many people complete individual tasks more quickly, that doesn’t save us time if many of those completed tasks are things we don’t need to do.
This theory also rings true for other technological advances: because we can travel across the country quickly and (once we’re through security screening) easily, many executives now make cross-country trips every week. Because email and text messages are fast and ostensibly “free” to send, we communicate constantly and expect responses within minutes instead of days; nowadays, 50% of workers check their work emails when they’re not on the job. Because household chores are easier to do, we’ve adopted a higher standard of cleanliness—meaning many households still spend about the same amount of time on home maintenance despite tasks being done more quickly.
A Better Goal
So, if technology could save us time on individual tasks, but it generally doesn’t, what’s going wrong? How can we take the time we save by working more efficiently and spend it on what really matters?
Sometimes it’s true that working faster allows us to do more work or better work. But we believe that there’s another answer that’s just as important: saving time at work should contribute to employees being able to get home on time.
That’s why we focus on technology that helps you do what you actually need to do—and helps you do it better and, yes, faster. Contracts need to be written; regulatory submissions must be completed on time and according to specs. Using the right technology in the right ways can help you execute your necessary tasks more quickly and with less effort. And that means you can finish your work, leave the office, and get home on time.
Which, after all, is probably the reason that you’re working.