E-mail is easy, the internet gives your company global access to customers and suppliers, and IM is, well, instant. But as inboxes mushroom to alarming proportions, IMs pop up constantly and internet distractions such as online shopping become pervasive on seemingly every desktop, it's clear that these and other communications technologies, from cell phones to blogs, have their dark sides.
The problem with e-mail, IM and the rest is that, as fast and convenient as they seem, they also interrupt the steady flow of work. "We know from years of experience in manufacturing that interruptions hurt productivity," says Timothy Smunt, professor of management at Wake Forest University's Babcock School of Management in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Historically, interruptions of any kind have large impacts on productivity, at least in the short term."
Productivity is a huge issue with knowledge workers whose interruptions consist largely of e-mails, says Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, training and consulting firm. A 2004 study by The ePolicy Institute and American Management Association found that 10 percent of employees reported more than half the day is spent on e-mail, up from 8 percent in 2003. "And 86 percent of our respondents say they engage in personal e-mail at work," Flynn adds.
IM isn't helping any. The ePolicy study found a staggering 90 percent of employees spend up to 90 minutes daily sending IMs. "It's probably one of the most interrupting and intrusive technologies we've seen come down the pike in a while," says John White, an international program director in Fairport, New York, of Priority Management Systems Inc., a worldwide training organization with headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia. "It can impair and erode productivity quickly."
Further problems dog other 21st century communications tools. Surfing news, shopping and other sites at work destroys an unknown but significant amount of productivity as well.
But before you unplug your e-mail server, consider that although these tools are distracting, they also empower productivity. White's firm surveyed corporate users and found that typical users got 50 or more e-mails daily. If they spend three minutes on each, that's well over two hours a day on e-mail alone. But no one they talked to could contemplate an e-mail-free existence. "The vast majority couldn't handle the pace or quantity of work without it," White says. "It helps their productivity, and most say it's absolutely required."
So rather than taking Draconian measures, seek to control, manage and leverage technology so you get more of the good and less of the bad effects. One of Smunt's consulting clients improved productivity in an invoice-processing department by increasing e-mail use for communicating with clients while also making more account information available to employees via an internal website. "The question is, How can you use the technology to your advantage?" he says.
A good answer to that question comes from Jonathan Spira, 42, and his 15 employees at Basex Inc.They've used IM since 1998, but it's rare for anyone at the New York City technology research firm to have work interrupted by an unwelcome IM. That's because the IM software from IBM that Spira installed lets users indicate whether they are available, away or in do-not-disturb mode. Only people whose status is "available" will get IMs. "Most of the time, we instant message and ask for permission to call to make sure we're not interrupting," Spira says. "We use instant messaging as a buffer."
Flynn recommends a three-pronged approach employing policies, training and enforcement, including software to monitor online activities and penalties for rule-breakers. Policy should define whom employees can communicate with, as well as when and for how long they can do it for personal purposes. Training should explain why the policy is necessary--and don't forget the penalties. You may well have to apply them. "Twenty-five percent of employers have fired employees for violating e-mail policy," Flynn says.
Soft solutions, however, may ultimately be best. Spira has never sent a memo about using the do-not-disturb setting on Basex's IM software, or training workers to IM for permission before phoning colleagues. "It's something people learn from corporate culture," he says. "If someone starts to instant message with unimportant questions, peer pressure will say this is not an appropriate way of using the tool."
For more information on mobile office technology, read "Workplace 2005."