Messages Galore, but No Time to Think

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I'M old enough to remember a simpler time in the office, when talking -- whether in person or on the phone -- was the main way to communicate. I once had a job where I filled out those pink "While You Were Out" slips for employees who had stepped away from their desks.

Then, in the 1990s, came e-mail, and things were never the same. Besides delivering a serious blow to the sellers of those pieces of paper, e-mail made communicating with people incredibly -- and, at first, delightfully -- easy.

Now, a few decades later, people constantly complain that their e-mail in-boxes are unmanageable. And many more technologies have joined the workplace party. We can now use cellphones, texts, instant messaging, text messaging, social media, corporate intranets and cloud applications to communicate at work.

Something may have been lost as we adopted these new communication tools: the ability to concentrate.

"Nobody can think anymore because they're constantly interrupted," said Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor and author of "Sleeping With Your Smartphone." "Technology has enabled this expectation that we always be on." Workers fear the repercussions that could result if they are unavailable, she said.

The intermingling of work and personal life adds to the onslaught, as people communicate about personal topics during the workday, and about work topics when they are at home.

According to a 2011 article in The Ergonomics Open Journal, electronic communication tools can demand constant switching, which contributes to a feeling of "discontinuity" in the workplace. On the other hand, people sometimes deliberately introduce interruptions into their day as a way to reduce boredom and to socialize, the article said.

We're only beginning to understand the workplace impact of new communication tools. The use of such technology in the office is "less rational than we would like to think," said Steve Whittaker a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Sometimes, "it's one person who's an evangelist," he said. "They will start using a particular thing, and they will bring other people along with them."

More tech-oriented types might favor the latest new communication "toy," while others, like me, are less enthusiastic. In the name of simplicity, I even try to avoid instant messaging. But I also can't help worrying that I am missing out.

Plenty of workplace advice focuses on how we, as individuals, can manage our technology, but in many cases, this is a collective, team-level issue, Professor Perlow said.

As Professor Whittaker put it, "We haven't stabilized our regular practices," and these may need to be negotiated among workers.

It's important to distinguish between collaborative and one-on-one communication, he said. Cloud-based systems are meant for sharing and editing documents, and they can enable people in different cities to work together in real time. Internal social media pages can be useful for seeking and sharing knowledge.

But when one person wants to communicate with another privately, e-mail remains the go-to method, Professor Whittaker said. That's why it is nearly universal, despite a general yearning for something better.

To lessen the disruptive nature of e-mail and other messages, teams need to discuss how to alter their work process to allow blocks of time where they can disconnect entirely, Professor Perlow said. "I don't think you can do it without leadership support," she added.

MAYBE more managers, consulting with their teams, need to set up clear guidelines for communication. When is it best to use the cloud? When is it best to use e-mail, or instant messaging? And when is it acceptable, even preferable, to turn off all technology? Not that managers need to be dictators, but a little clarity can lead to much more productivity.

Making it a priority to learn how to use the latest tools more effectively is a good idea, too. For example, how do those filters that help prioritize messages really work?

And let's never forget the value of face-to-face, or voice-to-voice, communication. An actual unrehearsed conversation -- requiring sustained attention and spontaneous reactions -- may be old-fashioned, but it just might turn up something new.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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