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Tools or Toys? 1

Tools or Toys? 1

July 10, 2006
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" The gadgets designed to boost productivity are actually hurting it. "

Visit Brandon Shalton's office on any given weekday and you might leave seeking medical care. Shalton, who owns a busy online service for webmasters called T3Report.com, is the ultimate modern-day multi-tasker. Two cellphones on his desk jingle with incoming calls while he deals with someone else on his office line. His email dinger dings repeatedly and instant messaging alerts blink on his computer screen. It's a cacophony of electronic noise, and it's part of everyday working life for Shalton and thousands of other executives and workers in today's techno-driven professional world, especially in the adult industry.

"All of these things are distractions if you've got work to do," Shalton admits. "The more time I lose due to distractions means that I have to spend more time working per day. I work 10-plus-hour days because of that, and that affects my personal life. Overall, you spend less time with your spouse and friends. My wife is very tolerant, but every once in awhile she gets jealous of the computer, and I have to pull back. You need to disconnect."

According to some recent eye-opening surveys, these distractions are doing more than just adding hours to the workday. The gadgets designed to boost productivity are actually hurting it. One study, conducted by Basex, an information technology research firm in New York, concluded that interruptions consume an average of 2.1 hours per day, or 28 percent of the workday.

The study showed that much of the time lost was due to the amount of recovery time needed to get back on track following those interruptions and distractions. And while the most common interruption is still a simple visit by a colleague, cellphone calls, IMs and ICQs, high-tech additions to the workplace are a significant factor in a productivity drain that costs the U.S. economy an estimated $588 billion per year.

"Multitasking is kind of a rush for me," Laurel Hertz, director of Internet marketing for Hustler, says. "I like it. You just need to learn how to prioritize your tools like ICQ. When you get one that has poses a serious question, you have to address it right away. I work with these technologies about 12 hours a day. In our industry, we need to be accessible, so you can't just tell people to turn off their cellphones and shut down their IM. My sister has a system in her office that delays incoming emails and phone calls that are considered unimportant to work. I find it pretty annoying dealing with an automated phone system."

As a symptom of this rising addiction to digital devices, the popularity of the BlackBerry device has exploded over the past year. In some cases, users have become so addicted that it is commonly known now as a "Crackberry" and has become a prime concern for employers who have watched it reduce productive time among workers.

Although Shalton owns a BlackBerry, he insists it is only as counterproductive as its user.

"You can do all kinds of neat things, and I can play with it forever," he says. "But basically, I just want a phone I can talk to others on and can use to get on the Internet. I could do all kinds of other things with it, like set up a calendar, but I don't have time for that. So as much as I rely on technology, I still find that it's an encumbrance. I just don't have time to learn it. I still use paper notes, and I don't know how to program my DVR. So it's like anything else. You've chosen to use these tools, but you can control it. I can still control who I talk to and when I talk to them. Voicemail and instant messaging will stay there until I answer it. So in that sense, it's not disruptive to me."

For employers like Ahn Tran of WantedList.com, the dilemma intensifies with mounting evidence that the tools of their trade have become the enemy.

A team of researchers from the University of California at Irvine recently traced 36 information technology workers at an investment firm and learned that the employees devoted only about 11 minutes to a project before being distracted by the ping of an email or the ring of a phone call. Once they were interrupted, it took an average of 25 minutes for them to return to their original task.

"As someone who owns a company, my biggest concern is the social networking sites that have become very popular over the last two years," Tran says. "MySpace, Friendster, TagWorld and instant messaging devices like AOL and MSN are available everywhere, and we struggle with the fact that you try to be a loose boss, so that your employees feel that you're managing them, but you're not micro-managing them."

Rand Pate, director of corporate communications for Paycom/Epoch feels that businesses have hit the point where too much of a good thing is just too much.

"While modern-day gadgets do make us accessible as never before," Pate says, "anything can be abused, and it is possible to make ourselves too accessible.

BlackBerries, cellphones, text messages and other gadgets and communication devices interfere with productivity by interrupting projects that require full attention.

"For the past three years, I've taken one week out of the year and removed communications technology from my life," Pate says. "No TV, no Internet, no phones — nothing that makes me accessible to anyone, any news, any advertising. During this time, I don't visit a store, see a billboard or even drive a car. For one week, I have nothing but human interaction. Granted, I have to take myself miles away from civilization to do this, but it is an exercise that helps put things in perspective and proves that you don't necessarily need continuous input, and that the devices you use for communication are tools, not necessities."

Tran agrees that these devices hurt productivity, and he thinks he knows why.

In part two, we'll continue our examination of instant messaging, corporate measures to mitigate its disruptive influence and more.


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