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Why Your Workplace Software Stinks

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I’m going to make an educated guess that you hate at least some of the technology you use for work.

Let me explain why, and how this big-ticket merger of two companies you may never have heard of relates to your fury. The bottom line: The most important quality of technology for businesses is whether a boss can be convinced to buy it, not whether you like it. It’s dreary but true.

Let me take you back to when technology was mostly something that companies used, not the rest of us. Then, technologies lived or died based on whether some dude in a suit and tie could be convinced that it was worth buying for his company.

An automaker bought software to track all the parts for its cars. An insurance company bought software to churn out bills to customers. Once email came along, your employer might have bought accounts for everyone. Probably no one asked the people using this technology whether it was useful and good. It mostly mattered whether the employer thought it was worthwhile.

That has changed — but only kind of.

One of the Big Ideas of technology in the last decade — a Big Idea that is only partly true — is that workers now have influence over the technology we use.

Software coders can use something called Airtable to manage a project without telling their bosses. A financial adviser might choose to trade documents over DocuSign with clients. A few colleagues could decide to use Zoom Video for team meetings or Slack to communicate by instant messages, and maybe later convince their employer to pay for versions with more features.

When the workers rather than the bosses decide on the technology, it matters whether the technology is nice to use. So those newer workplace technologies mostly don’t stink, or they stink less than older stuff.

But. This ideal of the empowered worker is not exactly true. I’m guessing that your bosses didn’t ask if you like the corporate expense or billing software you might use. Restaurant cooks probably don’t have a say in the order input systems they use, and health care workers don’t usually pick the software that clocks their hours or maintains patient records.

Technology may have changed but one thing that has held over from the old days is that it still really matters whether a boss in a suit and tie believes the technology is useful or easy to buy. (He is also probably still a dude.)

That is one big reason Salesforce, a company that sells a zillion kinds of software mostly bought by bosses, has agreed to pay $27.7 billion to buy Slack, one of the young companies predicated on the half-truth of the empowered worker. Giants like Salesforce can more easily sell software to the suit-and-tie types, especially to the largest companies that spend the most on technology.

In a way, this is a bummer. Slack, DocuSign, Airtable and other young companies can make nice software that you like, but someone at a company generally still pays for it. And it’s easier for Salesforce, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Workday or other corporate software supermarkets to sell employers on a collection of technologies that maybe mesh well together or are cheaper to buy in a bundle.

Slack sold out in part because of the perception that it couldn’t withstand Microsoft, which offered similar workplace software included in a grab bag of technologies that many corporations already buy. (My colleague David Streitfeld wrote about Salesforce going head-to-head with Microsoft.)

Supermarkets like Microsoft and Salesforce can and sometimes do make nice software, but employers’ priorities often conflict with making technology that is easy to use.

A lot has changed about the technologies we encounter at work. But the person writing the checks is still the most important customer, and that probably means you’ll hate the software you use at work.

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  • A broom handle is not a gun: My colleague Davey Alba wrote in February about a school district in New York that became one of the nation’s first to adopt facial recognition technology. The aim was to spot unwanted visitors, and help prevent mass shootings and stop sexual predators. In a follow-up, Vice News wrote that the company behind the facial recognition software wasn’t upfront about the technology misidentifying Black students. At times, it also made serious errors, including identifying broom handles as guns.

  • The demanding, mobile-tracked lives of app workers: NPR followed couriers in Beijing working 12-hour days to deliver packages for China’s e-commerce delivery services. Their every movement is tracked by app and they live in fear of a mistake or bad customer review that would cut their pay. My colleague Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura also wrote about the challenges of workers for restaurant delivery apps in New York.

  • A warning for holiday shoppers: The Wall Street Journal reported that UPS ordered delivery couriers not to pick up some recent online shopping orders from a handful of big U.S. retailers like Macy’s, suggesting that delivery companies are having a tough time managing our zeal for online holiday shopping. I wrote a newsletter in October about these feared delays, dubbed “shipaggedon,” and how shoppers might navigate them.

May I recommend the burnt sienna crayon for the pancreas? A hospital in New York made an anatomy coloring and activity book for kids.

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