Tools or Toys? 2

John Scura
In part one we began our look at communications technology, multi-tasking, and its impact on productivity. In this conclusion, we'll continue our examination of instant messaging, corporate measures to mitigate its disruptive influence and more.

Attention Deficit
"People often don't know how to concentrate when those devices are on," he says. "Today, you get beeps on your cellphone or an IM that pops up on your screen, and it happens while you're trying to think about something like software engineering or website design, and so it distracts your brain and those building blocks of logic kind of crumble. And it takes time to reassemble that logic in your head. That's a concern to employers — whether or not they're getting the most efficient brain efforts from their employees."

However, despite the acknowledged effects of too much digital stimulation, not all workers and users of communication tools make attempts to reduce the amount of distraction or stress they can cause. Researchers have found that despite the hindrance devices and over-communication can cause, few people take even the most basic steps to reduce workplace interruption.

In the Basex study, 55 percent of workers surveyed said they open email immediately or shortly after it arrives, no matter how busy they are, and that it rarely occurs to them to even turn off the ringers on their IM or cellphones.

Shalton says he has seen companies adopt policies to block unnecessary emails, ICQs and other technology gadgets at the firewall level, which allows a company to block instant messaging, web browsing and other things because they've calculated that people waste about 25 percent of their time on them.

Mary Czerwinski, a senior researcher at Microsoft, conducted a study that concluded that interruptions at the beginning or the end of a task were the most destructive. She said that distractions while work is just getting under way destroys the goals an employee has established, while an email ping or an IM popup at the end of the process breaks the employee's entire train of thought. But no matter when the distractions take place, the gadgets creating them are a necessary evil.

Of course, not all people have that kind of discipline, and some employers have taken steps that border on the Draconian. A number of firms have asked their employees to turn off their cellphones while in the office. Others have instituted filtering systems that block or delay emails and text messages that are potential distractions.

"I'm currently involved with some organizations who've told their people to turn off their cellphones in the office," Shalton says. "They tell them not to use ICQ, or they tell them not to give out their ICQ names. But you can't shut yourself down from those means of communication because that blocks good communications. So it's a matter of self-discipline or imposed discipline to filter out the noise but keep the good communications flowing. I think turning off ICQ or email or your phone is the worst thing you can do. You suffer for it, having to catch up on a bunch of voicemails, emails ICQ messages or other things that you missed that were important to be timely."

Tran sees another drawback to these radical company policies.

"Your workers use IM to keep in touch with each other inside the office, as well as with friends outside the office," he says. "That creates high employee morale. So is getting rid of it completely going to damage employee productivity because of low employee morale? It's a difficult question. Could you have a morale mutiny if you do? Do you reduce productivity because of lack of access? We allow usage of all these things, but if we find that individuals are constantly on these devices, or visiting MySpace, or doing personal blogs, then it's time for a conversation. But so far, we've allowed our people do to their own thing."

Tony Morgan agrees that tackling the issue of too much technology or not enough has been a struggle for his company National Net.

In 1998, National Net banned any kind of IMing among all its employees, and so far, despite a few bumps in the road, his decision has been a success. Morgan's original logic behind shutting down IM, in this case, ICQ, was that it didn't play any more of an essential role in the company's overall functioning than, say, email. Since the ban, he has had a few customers request ICQ as a form of communication, but Morgan claims it was never all that reliable to begin with, and those involved are probably better off without it. Morgan says that when it comes to resolving support issues with customers, he's just not willing to put his company's reputation in the hands of a "flaky" piece of software.

No Big Brother
"One of the things we try not to do is police our employees," Morgan says. "We don't monitor their email or communications. The whole Big Brother thing is not the kind of boss I try to be. I want to let my employees have enough freedom to do their job. It doesn't bother me if the wife calls and says, 'Bring home a gallon of milk.' That's not a big deal to me as long as they're getting the job done. I'm a results-oriented person." For his own personal sanity, Morgan turns off the ringer on his cellphone when he gets home at the end of the day, but he still stays within reach if people need to get in touch with him.

"I found that I couldn't even spend quality time with my kids without being distracted by it, and I tell everybody that the odds of me answering the phone are slim," he says. "Leave me a message and I'll call you back, because I can't be distracted from what's important to me at that time, whether it's my work or my family."

However, Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst for Basex, claims that today's generation of workers who grew up with IM, Googling and texting are far less stressed by a multitasking existence than older workers. Spira says younger people are actually wired differently and can more easily handle multiple distractions than their older counterparts.

"One of my favorite topics is the notion of disruptive technologies," Shalton says. "When you create new technologies that break out of the mold, it's disruptive because it causes change. It causes fear because you don't understand it until it eventually becomes accepted. It's a self-discipline issue. You've enabled all these different ways to get to you. You asked for that, so you need the self-discipline. Technology can control us, but if it does, then it's our fault."

In a recent report, a New York Times reporter interviewed several recent winners of MacArthur genius grants, each of whom said they take a stand against modern technology in order to protect their privacy and concentration. A majority of those interviewed said they kept cellphones and iPods turned off so they could think better, and some professionals swear by maintaining a discipline of avoiding voicemail messages, cellphones and other forms of communication in order to devote full attention to the task at hand.

Hertz concludes that it's all about finding balance in your life and learning to maximize technology, but also staying sane.

"You have to have a nice balance in your life, no matter what you do. One thing I do find is that when I'm on the phone for a long time, I have to pull myself away from the computer because I'll start to multitask and I won't give the person on the phone 100 percent of my attention. At that point, I just have to walk away from my computer."

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