Recently a colleague confessed to me that he sometimesexperiences “productivity windows”. Productivity windows, heexplained, are those brief periods of time that occur betweeninterruptions, when you can actually focus, think and get real workdone. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, productivity windows are becoming scarcer andscarcer; however, there are still a few effective ways of regainingproductive time. But before looking at these solutions, let’sreview the impact that disruptive, modern communication is havingon our lives.
While surveys and studies indicate that technology has made ourjobs richer in many ways, there has also been a negative effect.These same surveys and studies reveal that staff is sufferingstress as a result of too much electronic communication.Undisciplined communication appears to have happened becausetechnology is being introduced without much thought about how it isbeing used.
For example, we introduce employees briefly to the technicalskills they need to be barely functional when using the lateste-mail system. But where we fail is in not teaching them how to usethe technology with skill, so that it really adds to their jobproductivity and, at the same time, does not intrude on orundermine fellow workers’ productivity.
The result is that thousands of time-consuming, poorly written,ambiguous, purposeless messages are being sent to people who haveno need to see them. This happens every day in every department andagency.
At the heart of this communication confusion is the fact that weoften don’t know which medium should be used under whichcircumstances. E-mail has become the catch-all medium of choice formany people even though it has its limitations. E-mail is great fortransmitting information but is a poor substitute for meetings.
Another phenomenon introduced by e-mail is that messages,especially electronic ones, are assumed to require instantresponses. We look at the computer screen when an e-mail hasarrived even though it has been scarcely two minutes since we lastchecked for messages. We also grab the phone the instant it ringseven when someone is talking to us. The false need for instantgratification causes stress, shallow thinking and rudebehaviour.
One Canadian study, “Mental Health: The Ultimate ProductivityWeapon” (Holmwood Institute for Organizational Health, 1999) linked”enslavement by e-mail” and “the unending flow of electronicmessages” with workplace stress. It then linked workplace stresswith depression, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Other studieshave confirmed this finding and linked e-stress togastro-intestinal and skin disorders as well as the commoncold.
A better solution is to develop processes, discipline and skillin the use of communication media. Understanding the commonelements of communication – intentionality, structure and barriers- is a good starting point.
Specific training in the key media of meetings, e-mail and thetelephone can improve their use. Bonus: A spill-over effectimproves the use of other media. For example, many of the skillsdeveloped for face-to-face meetings apply to video andaudio-conferencing as well.
The paradox is that most people spend their workday preparing tocommunicate, communicating or reacting to communication – yetorganizations do virtually nothing to ensure that communication iseffective and efficient. Even though communication is thelife-blood of the organization, it operates more by chance than bydesign.
Three immediate solutions are readily available: Improvingcommunication skills, applying a more disciplined use of the mediaand using appropriate processes to share information and knowledge.The benefits to all from ore productivity windows include: Reducedstress, improved productivity, improved work-life balance and theopportunity to use communication as a strategic resource.
The key step is to recognize that people, not technology, arethe resources which in which departments need to invest. Improvingcommunication skills will require leadership, engaging staff andcarefully facilitating change. But it can be done and the benefitswill be dramatic.
Peter Turner ([email protected])is currently on assignment to the federal government after 12 yearsof researching and developing products for improvinge-communication.