Are your “productivity windows” … disappearing?

Recently a colleague confessed to me that he sometimes experiences “productivity windows”. Productivity windows, he explained, are those brief periods of time that occur between interruptions, when you can actually focus, think and get real work done. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, productivity windows are becoming scarcer and scarcer; however, there are still a few effective ways of regaining productive time. But before looking at these solutions, let’s review the impact that disruptive, modern communication is having on our lives.

While surveys and studies indicate that technology has made our jobs richer in many ways, there has also been a negative effect. These same surveys and studies reveal that staff is suffering stress as a result of too much electronic communication. Undisciplined communication appears to have happened because technology is being introduced without much thought about how it is being used.

For example, we introduce employees briefly to the technical skills they need to be barely functional when using the latest e-mail system. But where we fail is in not teaching them how to use the technology with skill, so that it really adds to their job productivity and, at the same time, does not intrude on or undermine fellow workers’ productivity.

The result is that thousands of time-consuming, poorly written, ambiguous, purposeless messages are being sent to people who have no need to see them. This happens every day in every department and agency.

At the heart of this communication confusion is the fact that we often don’t know which medium should be used under which circumstances. E-mail has become the catch-all medium of choice for many people even though it has its limitations. E-mail is great for transmitting information but is a poor substitute for meetings.

Another phenomenon introduced by e-mail is that messages, especially electronic ones, are assumed to require instant responses. We look at the computer screen when an e-mail has arrived even though it has been scarcely two minutes since we last checked for messages. We also grab the phone the instant it rings even when someone is talking to us. The false need for instant gratification causes stress, shallow thinking and rude behaviour.

One Canadian study, “Mental Health: The Ultimate Productivity Weapon” (Holmwood Institute for Organizational Health, 1999) linked “enslavement by e-mail” and “the unending flow of electronic messages” with workplace stress. It then linked workplace stress with depression, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Other studies have confirmed this finding and linked e-stress to gastro-intestinal and skin disorders as well as the common cold.

A better solution is to develop processes, discipline and skill in the use of communication media. Understanding the common elements of communication – intentionality, structure and barriers – is a good starting point.

Specific training in the key media of meetings, e-mail and the telephone can improve their use. Bonus: A spill-over effect improves the use of other media. For example, many of the skills developed for face-to-face meetings apply to video and audio-conferencing as well.

The paradox is that most people spend their workday preparing to communicate, communicating or reacting to communication – yet organizations do virtually nothing to ensure that communication is effective and efficient. Even though communication is the life-blood of the organization, it operates more by chance than by design.

Three immediate solutions are readily available: Improving communication skills, applying a more disciplined use of the media and using appropriate processes to share information and knowledge. The benefits to all from ore productivity windows include: Reduced stress, improved productivity, improved work-life balance and the opportunity to use communication as a strategic resource.

The key step is to recognize that people, not technology, are the resources which in which departments need to invest. Improving communication skills will require leadership, engaging staff and carefully facilitating change. But it can be done and the benefits will be dramatic. 062480

Peter Turner ( is currently on assignment to the federal government after 12 years of researching and developing products for improving e-communication.

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