Hanging up on high-tech connectivity

A profusion of connectivity devices doesn’t always lead to better communication.

In fact, as a recent report indicates, quite often the very opposite is true.

Mobile phones, portable e-mail devices and other electronic doodads are not helping many of today’s office workers communicate as effectively as they would like to, according to Avaya’s 2005 Global Research Report.

Sixty-four per cent of office workers surveyed carry two or more technology devices. Nonetheless, “over half…have missed an important business meeting, customer enquiry, contract or new business lead because they were not able to e-mail or call someone,” the report says.

The network gear maker’s response to this tech failure? More technology, of course.

Although the report, penned by U.K.-based research firm Vanson Bourne Ltd., includes information culled from workers in Australia, Brazil, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., it applies to Canadians, said Tracy Fleming, Avaya Canada’s national IP telephony practice leader. “The trends we see are consistent with the Canadian marketplace.”

Avaya concludes that communication applications enhanced with the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) might solve the problem. This signaling system supports find me-follow me, voice-to-video interaction, office phone to cell phone forwarding, call prioritization (important calls come to the phone first) and other so-called “presence” capabilities that could help people catch messages they might otherwise miss.

But is SIP the right response to an effective digital failure? After all, there are more mobile devices these days than ever before. They handle voice, text — even photos in some instances. But it hasn’t helped. People still feel disconnected. Why should SIP, another binary bridge, fix the situation?

Fleming said SIP simplifies the “silly” communication paradigm that mobile phones, BlackBerries and Palm Pilots have introduced into our lives — a situation he witnesses at his own workplace.

“I saw a gentleman this morning in the office. He had a BlackBerry, a phone and a pager strapped to his hip. Not only has he likely baked his liver, he has three devices, and none of them is twinned to his corporate extension. We have to move away from that.”

But Estelle Gee suggests a low-tech solution. As director of Orderly Lives, an organizing services provider in Toronto, she figures office workers should change their attitudes towards communication, rather than immediately embrace the next big thing.

Instead of chasing every e-mail, voice mail and text message that comes their way, people should prioritize. Respond to and initiate calls according to specific goals: an improved workplace experience, or a level work-life balance, for example.

“You have to start with the goal in mind,” she said, pointing out that people feel less effective in the workplace today despite the myriad communication conduits available.

According to a survey from the University of Surrey (U.K.) conducted for Siemens PLC, faster inter-office communication isn’t necessarily good. Although e-mail and mobile phones are considered productivity boosters, they’re also hurting the work environment.

“The use of e-mail and mobile phones were felt to have reduced people’s patience in a work context and could lead to stress and anger in certain circumstances,” reads a report on the survey, published last summer. “Respondents recognized that we live in an age where we expect to be able to contact colleagues, clients and suppliers almost instantly.”

People need “information breaks,” Gee said. The constant connectivity that SIP affords could make people feel even more besieged by data, and less capable of keeping their work lives in check.

“Technology can be liberating, but it can also be enslaving. We assume that with every new generation of technology that we have to buy in. We don’t have to buy in….It is a choice.”

Fleming said choices aren’t always easy to make. “If I really wanted to simplify my life I’d get rid of my cell phone entirely, but it would certainly harm me from a productivity perspective.”

In the end SIP might be the best way to smooth over the high-tech knot woven from multiple connective devices, he said. After all, cell phones and the like are here to stay. People will continue to miss messages, meetings and potential revenue opportunities unless their employers discover a way to make order of communication chaos.