The most important tool to American workers these days isn't a laptop or a cellphone or even LinkedIn.
According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, it's email.
Pew polled more than 1,000 adults this past September, quizzing them about how technology has impacted or changed the way they work. A majority (61 percent) of respondents put email at the top of the important tool list, with a more general answer of "the Internet" coming in second and landline phones coming in third.
Surprisingly, said Lee Rainie, the director of Pew's Internet Project, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn came in dead last with an importance rating of just 4 percent.
"There is plenty of commentary that new channels like social media or hot new communications platforms will supplant email," Rainie said. "The death of email has been forecast for a long time. Yet, email has survived every challenge from spam to Skype to remain the most important tool for most workers."
Those polled also said tools like email, the Internet and cellphones made them feel more productive. Forty-six percent of respondents said the tools made them feel "more productive," while 7 percent said they felt their productivity had dropped as a result of digital technology being distracting.
"The world of work has drastically changed in the Internet age. These tools are changing how people do their jobs, when they perform work-related tasks, and how they interact with their bosses," Rainie said. "It’s part of a very big story about how economic life is changing in advanced societies."
And that story might not have a happy ending if more workers feel obligated to stay plugged in for the sake of their job, said Ray Williams, founder of Vancouver-based management coaching firm Ray Williams and Associates.
"Digital technology has augmented the speed at which we can access and act upon information and be connected with people in real time — that's a huge benefit," Williams said. "The downside is that with the use of that technology, people are on all the time. That throws work/life balance out of whack."
Flexible vs. overworked
While the Pew respondents mostly reported they felt technology made them productive, Williams says that's not proof that productivity isn't slipping.
Williams pointed to a Gallup poll last spring that found 70 percent of employees aren't engaged at work — meaning they're less productive than they could be because they don't feel emotionally or intellectually invested in their jobs. Williams knows a lot of things can contribute to an employee's engagement, but he says distraction from multitasking across multiple forms of digital technology is part of the problem.
"Being connected to multiple stimuli constantly has been shown to be a detractor and deterrent of productivity," Williams said. "The brain doesn’t have capacity to sustain that for extended period of time."
Staying connected to work can also put strain on workers' personal lives if they feel the need to stay connected after hours or work from home to finish work.
"The once rigid boundary between 'work' and 'home' has changed to something that is highly permeable," Rainie said. "Many people reported they are working more and they feel more 'on call' when it’s possible for their bosses to yank the electronic leash and email them after hours or call their smartphone while they are on vacation."
In a piece published in The Atlantic this November, an Allstate poll found that most Americans were pleased that technology could make their work hours more flexible — if only they had clearer boundaries about when they were and weren't supposed to be working. It's hard, many employees in the article argued, to draw the line between working "flexible" hours and just working more.
Pew's survey found that 39 percent of respondents credited technology with allowing them to have more flexible work hours, but 35 percent said it also forced them to work more hours. Whether or not workers feel obligated to stay connected after hours or the employer expects it is a murkier question.
Last year, France and Germany created labor mandates cutting any obligation to answer work emails after 6 p.m. to preserve "la dolce vita," as the U.K. Guardian put it. But Williams says that here in the U.S., the obligation to check and respond to work emails is sometimes self-inflicted by a younger generation of workers who are used to being constantly connected.
"There is some expectation on the part of employers that employees should be accessible 24/7 and that starts to spread," Williams said. "But people born after 1985 grew up with expectation that they’re constantly plugged in and they're not stressed about it. The issue is how does that hamper productivity when it's carried into work?"
Regardless of who expects the after-hours emails answered, Williams said, failing to disconnect can cut into important down time people need.
"We've all heard stories about someone getting an idea when they’re not doing anything," Williams said. "That's because your brain needs rest time so it can process and integrate all the things it’s learned during the day. If you’re always plugged in, how can you have that reflection time?"
Learning to unplug
While some large corporations like Volkswagen have jumped on the bandwagon of fostering work/life balance by cutting out after-hours communication, the private sector is also offering ways to help.
Off Time is one business that offers help for people who need digital "quiet hours" or help minimizing distraction. The Berlin-based company's Android app has been downloaded 300,000 times since its October launch and named one of Google's best apps of 2014.
The app works a bit like a secretary, says Off Time co-founder Michael Dettbarn: It intercepts incoming calls, notifications, texts and more for any amount of time the user specifies, whether to help focus on a single task or just unwind without interruption.
"We’re not finding the time to develop a habit that’s healthy for us because there’s constant innovations going on and new devices popping into our lives. Before we realize what it does to us, we just find ourselves onto the next episode," Dettbarn said.
Dettbarn and his partners founded Off Time when they found that their occasional "sabbaticals" from the Internet weren't enough for them to recharge after technology-filled workdays.
"We need to develop and help ourselves deal with technology to have a good relationship with your work," Dettbarn said. "It's clear that we have to find more technology that supports us rather than exploits us."