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Introducing the balanced communications diet for business


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A Cambridge University study on communication and wellbeing at work. This whitepaper provides a thought leadership view and a pragmatic solution to changing collaboration in the workspace. It also fits well with BYOD as it tends to further blur work-life balance.

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Introducing the balanced communications diet for business

  1. 1. Introducing the balanced communications diet for business A workshift paper by Dr Nicola J. Millard
  2. 2. “The average worker has fifty interruptions a day, of which seventy percent have nothing to do with work.” The Problem of Workus Interruptus W. Edwards Deming Did you know that, according to the Future of Work Consortium, during an average working day we are interrupted every 3 minutes...oh, hang on my phone just beeped... now, where was I? As we all carry around devices that are both always on and always on us, the traditional boundaries between work and home are blurring. According to a BT/Cambridge University study, 1 in 3 of us report that we feel overwhelmed by the communications technology. During our daily lives we have to navigate our way through calls, tweets, pokes, emails, beeps, flashing lights and cope with the pressure of responding to all these like Pavlov’s Dogs did to a ringing bell. The trouble is that, once connected, it is easy to get addicted to that connection. According to Cisco’s 2011 Connected World survey, 49% of young people consider the internet to be as close in importance as water, shelter food and air and 55% of this group also indicated that they couldn’t live without the internet. However, the pressures associated with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is creating worries about technology overload, even in a younger population, with 38% of 10 – 18-year-olds claiming to feel this 49% of young people consider the way and 25 – 34-year-olds not far behind, internet to be as close in importance with 34%. In South Korea, internet addiction is actually considered to be as big a health threat as water, shelter food and air and 55% of this group also indicated that as alcoholism. they couldn’t live without the internet. History has shown that every technological advance tends to bring worries about the effect that it is having on us – the advent of the printing press provoked worries as to whether we would become addicted to the fictional world of the novel and society would start to disintegrate as a result. So it is not a surprise that many eminent scientists and researchers (amongst them Susan Greenfield, Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr and Richard Watson) are discussing the effects on us of an always on, always connected global The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 3
  3. 3. When are we most productive? Productivity is often mistaken for efficiency. Productivity isn’t about time and motion studies and processes, it is about getting things done. In a survey we conducted, we were given a wide variety of answers to the question “where, when and why are you most productive at work?” “I find I get a full day of work done between 6:00 and 9:30 in the morning. For my sanity as well, knowing I can get at least 2 productive hours of work in before breakfast makes a huge difference to my day.” “In the evening, hands down. Less interruptions and my natural time clock is at its peak then” “I’m a night bird – my best work is done once the kids (and the husband) are in bed and I get some ‘me’ time” “For ideas – it’s before 9.30am. For acting on those ideas, 10am to 3pm” communications network that defies time, geography and space. Communication is essential for healthy life and good business decisions – but being overwhelmed by communication is not. Just like food is essential for survival – too much of it can be bad for us. As globalisation transforms the way that we do business and access to technologies becomes ubiquitous, the challenges around the use of these technologies become increasingly universal. 36.4% of UK users in the Cambridge study found technology at least sometimes disrupted family life, with 10.5% finding that disruption regular. The frequency of feeling overwhelmed by technology was very similar 36.4% of UK users in the Cambridge study found for the UK, US, and Australia. However, the technology at least sometimes disrupted family life, pattern was strikingly different in China, with with 10.5% finding that disruption regular. most respondents indicating that they rarely if ever felt overwhelmed by communications technology. People in China feel that they have a more positive relationship with technology, even though China was the only country for which high levels of overall communications technology use was also found to impact negatively on well-being. In an era where the 9-to 5-day is increasing being eroded, how do we get an analoguedigital balance to match our work-life balance? Are there simple rules to help us to become healthier and more productive in work? How do we prevent work-life blurring consuming our lives? This paper takes the results of a consumer study done in the UK, US, Australia and China during 2011 by a team led by BT’s Mary Lumkin and Sue Hessey and Cambridge University’s Anna Mieczakowski, Tanya Goldhaber and John Clarkson [1] and explores the data from the perspective of a business user of communications technology. 4 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business “I need peace and quiet – interruptions just jumble my brain up and I get nothing done”. “On a plane – it’s the only safe haven now from calls and emails. Sadly, that looks as if that’s going to change soon!” “I do all my thinking in the car – I have an hour’s commute – once I get to the office it’s all go, go, go! Do I want to work from home? No, I’d lose all that thinking time!” “I can tell you where I’m NOT productive – being tugged in all different places sitting in a “team” set-up office with no privacy or physical barriers between myself and others”. The general theme that emerges from these answers is that people regard themselves as most productive when they are free of interruption – which is generally outside the 9-to-5 day. The problem is, as one person aptly put it, “I can’t get through the work for talking about the work”. However, if you rephrase this question and ask them what motivates them about work over and above A significant amount of well-being research the money that they earn, they say that they “like the supports the idea that having time to think and people that they work with” – who, one assumes, are reflect each day does a great deal for well-being. generally the source of many of these interruptions! A significant amount of well-being research supports the idea that having time to think and reflect each day does a great deal for well-being. This is the time that, if the answers to these questions are to be believed, we seem to value. People who are always “plugged-in” often don’t The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 5
  4. 4. get this vital mental downtime. By consciously taking time out, we can improve well-being and productivity at work. We all seem to recognise that we need to simply withdraw to somewhere else sometimes to apply our brains to a task. However, doing this can be easier said than done! One of the biggest issues is simply the definition of ‘productive work’. If you equate a clear email inbox with productivity, then that is probably what you do all day. However, productivity always seems to put a higher value on action rather than inaction. The value of reflection is underrated because business is so concerned with action and activity – things that are easy to measure – rather than thinking about action, which looks too much like staring into space. “Being tugged in all directions” is a classic response to unpredictable demands on people during their working day and a lack of control over those demands. People are most likely to become enthusiastic about what they are doing when they are free to make decisions about the way that they do it. Nearly every psychological model of motivation emphasises the importance of People are most likely to become enthusiastic the perception of control on an individual’s motivation about what they are doing when they are free to to do their job. Classic psychology [2], tells us that high make decisions about the way that they do it. levels of demand and low levels of perceived control over key aspects of people’s job results in stress, burnout and emotional exhaustion. Control is easier on some communication devices than others, as one British female interviewed in the research explained: “I’m in control of my laptop – I choose when I’m online – but I’m not in control of my phone”. Pressure to be constantly connected can act against the perception of control, as one British man observed: “I worked for a guy who would use out of hours emails and phone calls as a control and bullying tactic. He would want to prove that you were always available to him by sending emails and insisting on answers at all hours of the night…it was dreadful. It’s one of the reasons I loathe Blackberries.” He went on to say how he has had to consciously reduce how much he lets his work life interfere with his family life, saying: “I have tried to reduce the number of times in an evening that I check for work emails”. Taking control of distractions and interruptions could be one way of becoming more productive, improving the quality of decision-making and also reducing the impact of stress and sickness absence. Brain juggling Behavioural economists like Duke University’s Dan Ariely will tell you that there is one thing that acts strongly against us simply choosing to switch off. Technology plays to the natural distractibility of human nature and our compulsion to embrace uncertainty and novelty. Every time the new mail notification flashes up on screen, the response flag on Facebook appears or the red light glows on our Blackberry, we feel the need to take a look, regardless of what else we are Every time the new mail notification flashes up on doing. The vast majority of these alerts lead us to screen, the response flag on Facebook appears or the irrelevant, routine, or junk stuff. However, there is red light glows on our Blackberry, we feel the need to the occasional “reward” – an important document or take a look, regardless of what else we are doing. good news – that motivates us to keep checking for incoming messages even when we should really be paying attention to other things (like walking in a straight line or attending a meeting). In addition, the accomplishment we feel when we reach the end of our email inbox or send that witty tweet tends to be easier to achieve than doing all those other, more complex tasks on our ‘to do’ list. One problem with this, Ariely explains, is that the frequency of distraction is inversely correlated with productivity. As we compulsively check incoming messages, the less productive we become. Psychologist Richard Balding, from the University of Worcester, reported at a 2012 British Psychological Society conference that he had found a close relationship between stress and the amount of times we check our devices – with the most stressed even imagining ‘phantom’ alerts and checking their devices when there was actually nothing coming in. MIT’s Chris Csikszentmihályi believes that the reason that technology now is more distracting than it used to be is that the alerts from devices are becoming increasingly social in nature. Devices now alert us to text messages, voicemails and even the locations of our friends and colleagues, whereas previously devices might only send out alerts when they were out of batteries. These social alerts are hard to tune out. You can ignore the ping of a washing machine when it has finished a spin cycle but you can’t ignore your boss. This tends to result in us attempting to multitask or, even worse, task switch. The psychological theory of limited resources suggests that human attention capability is fairly limited and, in practice, we generally don’t really multitask – we do a multiple series of single tasks, effectively the mental equivalent of juggling. One concern with this is that we become increasingly unable to concentrate and complete complex ...people who regard themselves as good at tasks because we continuously leap from one multitasking are generally worse at judging the thing to another, finishing little. quality of information that they are reading and worse at recalling what they have done. Research from Stanford University [3] has shown that people who regard themselves as good at multitasking are generally worse at judging the quality of information that they are reading and worse at recalling what they have done. This means that they are often less productive than people who are single taskers. 6 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 7
  5. 5. How do we prefer to communicate at work? In the Cambridge University study, adults overwhelmingly preferred face-to-face communication, particularly to deliver important or emotionally sensitive messages. A typical observation from a US-based male worker was: “If I’m at work I prefer to talk face-to-face. Thankfully, we have cell phones now so when I’m away from my desk doing my thing, I can communicate on the phone. But pretty much, my choice is face-to-face first because then you can look at the person, and a lot of times, I’m telling somebody to do something and I’ll see in their eyes if they don’t want to do it…For me, it’s face-to-face first, phone second and then email. Unfortunately we have to do a lot of email.” Multitasking can also be quite exhausting – as paying attention to one thing whilst doing another means that we need to do more work to maintain any level of attention on either task. Sitting in a meeting doing email on your Blackberry generally means either the meeting or the email gets short shrift. The lesson here? The average person is generally unaware of the cognitive effect that technology is having on their life. Multitasking is not the ultimate productivity killer, though – task switching is. This is when you start one task, get interrupted and then either attempt to regain your original chain of thought or simply forget what you were doing and Multitasking is not the ultimate productivity killer, move on. If you have ever closed your PC down at the though – task switching is. This is when you start end of the day and found a multitude of half finished one task, get interrupted and then either attempt email replies and half completed documents, you have probably been the victim of task switching! Academics to regain your original chain of thought or simply have long known that task-switching impedes forget what you were doing and move on. memory and knowledge retention, particularly for interruptions mid-task. Face-to-face contact is still hugely valuable – but is often a luxury especially in highly virtualised and globalised businesses. As one male home worker pointed out: “I can’t get up and go and speak to people; I have to use remote communications. In order of productivity it’s phone, IM, Email. The issue is the number of people who just ignore the phone and leave IM off, meaning there is no other option but to email them.” In the Cambridge study, text-based communications emerged as a favourite for pure information exchange, with many people citing the ease with which information could be distributed to large numbers of people with minimal effort. However, the challenge of conveying any sort of emotional content via text was frequently brought up as an issue. Evidence exists that if you choose to task-switch, it is easier to recover from than when you switch unexpectedly when distractions arrive during the working day. Social media tends to take a lot of the negative flak for distraction – with 1 in every 7 minutes online now spent on Facebook – and is often banned entirely by organisations. In fact there is evidence that choosing to take an occasional short break on a social networking site can actually increase productivity [4]. This is because it can give the brain (which tends to work well in short bursts of activity) a bit of a cognitive time-out before it returns to a concentrated task. However, having the self control to close everything down and concentrate on a single task until it is finished is probably the biggest challenge. 8 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 9
  6. 6. MIT Cognitive Scientist Rebecca Saxe maintains that a lot of valuable social information has always been gathered in a non-face-to-face context. Gossip and storytelling have always served as important ways to teach, and to learn, social norms. Hearing stories about absent – or even imaginary – people and actions reinforces what acceptable behaviour is, and what a culture expects from social relationships. This non-face-to-face “technology” has been around for millennia. Preferences for technology-mediated communication, whether by phone, text, IM, or one of the myriad of other options, varied widely among individuals, sexes and ages. Text, even in a world of social media and IM, is regarded as simple yet effective by many. “Texting is good, because it’s not intrusive for the person you’re sending the text to... It’s usually short and sweet, so it’s nice – you know, simple,” said one British man interviewed. This thought was echoed by a British lady: “I like being texted because it’s instant. I always have my mobile with me. Yesterday somebody left me two messages on the phone and I had no idea, until just before I went to bed when it was too late to call them back; whereas if they text me I’ll get it straightaway.” Although many adults used social media such as Facebook as a communication tool, it was the Generation Ys and Zs that were more positive about social tools and used it to do everything from chat to scheduling meet-ups. This is the challenge Despite the stereotype of the younger generation for the future as they are likely to want to use these tools being inseparable from their mobile, it was adults to engage with (often older) colleagues as they enter the who appeared to be very dependent on this workplace. particular piece of technology. Despite the stereotype of the younger generation being inseparable from their mobile, it was adults who appeared to be very dependent on this particular piece of technology. One Chinese employee agreed: “I double check my belongings before I go out—keys, wallet and telephone. I would feel lost without a telephone for even one minute.” However, inseparability from the mobile was also a double edged sword, as one American man commented: “I mean, the technology is wonderful, but frankly I’ve days I wish I didn’t have a cell phone. I’d love to be able to just put it up there, but it’s just the changing way of our world!” Undoubtedly communications technologies are vital to the way that we collaborate at work. However, the effectiveness with which these technologies are used to help productivity is more about cultural factors than the technology itself. How do we start to understand the strengths and weaknesses of channels and get them to work for us? Channel abuse: the worst offender Opinion seems to be changing as to which channel is regarded as the ultimate time devourer – and the spotlight is currently falling on email. Email can create a sudden influx of demand on an individual, leading to ‘information overload’. This makes it particularly problematic for productivity and the ability to process information effectively. As technology makes us more productive and more efficient, things that used to take days now take minutes. According to Natasha Dwyer from Victoria University in Melbourne, this increases the pressure for people to accomplish more and she believes this is making people both tired and stressed. Richard Balding’s research found that most of us have acquired devices like smart phones to manage our email better. However, he found that the productivity benefits of these devices are displaced by the resulting pressure to keep on top of things. This “always on” aspect can significantly impinge on family time, according to the findings of the Cambridge study. “Every time my phone goes bleep, I pick it up and check what the email is. You can’t not do it. I couldn’t be without a mobile phone now,” explained one British man. This wasn’t a problem confined to the UK: “I do find it frustrating when it [email] is work related, and it’s coming in out of work times,” lamented an Australian mum. This has led some very prominent companies to either look at banning email internally (in the case of ATOS – ) or limiting it after hours (in the case of BMW Germany – ). The advent of quick reflex responses on email has taught people to regard email is an almost synchronous communication mechanism – which it actually isn’t! “There is that expectation that you respond phone buzzes beside the bed all night, as emails come in...the number of emails you get in at nine o’clock at night and then you get one at seven o’clock in the morning saying: ‘you haven’t responded to me yet’” was a fairly typical scenario reported by, in this case, an Australian lady. This belief tends to create a false sense of urgency, puts pressure on us to respond fast (with no time to think carefully about our responses) and means that we can spend more time reading and responding to it than actually getting any other work done. As one British male observed: “It seems to me that it is only self-inflicted abuse that impacts productivity. I’ve never been chastised for not replying to email in minutes. It’s down to us users to manage our time effectively.” Behavioural psychologist Shifu Yan from Shanghai Jiao Tong University believes that this sense of urgency has a negative impact on the quality of decision-making. Speed and quality are two key variables when people make important decisions, and they often come into conflict. Faster transition of information, facilitated by modern communication technology, provides more resources to decision-makers within a certain period, but such decisions might lack detail or adequate consideration. Worse still, key people may not respond in time and decisions are then made without their potentially critical input. Fast decisions are not always ideal, but more and more decisions are, of necessity, being made quickly. Cambridge University Professor of Human-Computer Interaction Alan Blackwell is also concerned that the inevitable shortening of attention spans with regard to information means that, when we do think about information, we can only do it in a shallow, 140-character elevator 10 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 11
  7. 7. pitch style. His concern is that we tend to focus so much on finding information (made far easier by the ubiquitous search engine) that we have little time left to think about it. Another concern, voiced by David Good from Cambridge University, is that in order to communicate with others in the past, there was a cost incurred by both the sender and receiver of information – in terms of effort and often financially as well. Today, people can send huge amounts of material to others quickly and with almost zero additional cost. As a result, people’s ...people’s capacity to burden other people capacity to burden other people has greatly increased and there is no longer a constraint in the structure of the system that moderates has greatly increased and there is no longer a demands on other people. This means that you can effectively have a constraint in the structure of the system that one-way communication rather than a dialogue, especially if people moderates demands on other people. don’t reply to the message. One British man interviewed said of email: “Email’s quite a slow form of communication, do you know what I mean? email conversation with somebody over several days is quite long and drawn out, whereas a telephone conversation is much easier I find.” Another male respondent to a short survey conducted for this paper said that they simply turned email off for most of their working week: “Is it time to turn off e-mail? Simple answer, yes. One day a week works for me and I get so much more done on that day. The most effective way of synchronous communication is an old fashioned, tried and tested method. It’s called talking.” You do wonder that, if email had been invented before the phone, would we be going “forget email, with this new phone thing I could talk to people.”? Although it’s easy to write off email, it does have its uses. The great thing – and the problem – with it is that it covers a kind of middle ground between other more instant forms of communication (Instant Messaging, social media, telephone) and more traditional written communications like post. For one thing, you can communicate with a lot of people at a single click of the ‘send’ key. As one British man commented: “You can send an email to ten people in one go rather than have to ring everyone individually.” The fact that it leaves an audit trail was also flagged as an advantage: “emails are good evidence of action as you never know when you’ll be asked for evidence particularly in a company where suspicion of inaction is rife”. One British woman actually preferred email over the phone because “it’s quicker”, adding that “a phone call you kind of have to say ‘How are you, how’s it going?’ and spend a bit longer. Email you can just get your message across.” Some people couldn’t live without it, as one British man commented: “With email, I have the option of scanning a message when it arrives and then deciding if it needs me to drop whatever I’m doing to deal with it, or to leave it until a more convenient time. I can’t do that with phone or IM.” Natasha Dwyer thinks the way that technology has developed sometimes shows a misunderstanding of what people actually want or need. Text messaging, for instance, is something that was once thought to be only useful or needed by engineers. The current ubiquity of text messaging lays that idea to rest. The problem, says Dwyer, was the misunderstanding of people’s need to communicate in a non-emotional way. For communicating some kinds of information, being able to distil a message down to its emotionless essence is actually ideal for many people. However, people are generally aware that certain communications media are better for some tasks than other: “You know you can’t use text messaging for certain things. I make phone calls for certain reasons, I’ll use email for a certain person. I suppose in that sense, then yes you know I choose the most appropriate technology for the communication that I want to have.” Other interviewees agreed: “It’s like with anything, you might read or you might hear, it’s decontextualised a bit, and your immediate reaction might be to kind of jump to a conclusion which 12 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business perhaps you shouldn’t jump to.” An Australian male also elaborated: “You get that someone has completely misunderstood you. They’re reading it so differently to what I’ve written. That can be frustrating.” One British woman also expressed frustration with the difficulty in making sure that non-verbal messages were perceived appropriately: “One thing that I find emailing someone as opposed to having a conversation face-to-face with people is that I spend such a long time pondering how to put things in an email. I could spend two hours thinking of how best to write five lines to somebody. In some ways it ends up being quite a slow process because you spend so much time analysing something that you’re going to send to someone that you think ‘Why did I ever bother?’”. Some futurologists are forecasting the demise of email, and teenagers often write it off as “so last year” – but old channels often hang around for a while. New channel on the block social media has been seen as email’s possible successor. Its significant strength is that you don’t actually have to know who to contact in order to message them and it can cross Some futurologists are forecasting organisational silos (and defy spam filters) – as one British male the demise of email, and teenagers observed: “Finding the right person to talk to can be a challenge often write it off as “so last year” on email! Sometimes the way you have to raise a topic is to send – but old channels often hang it to a group email inbox and you have to wait for a reply before around for a while. you can get any direct contact with whoever has picked up the mail to deal with it.” Another British male also pointed out that the visibility of social content tends to trump email as a collaboration tool: “A huge negative consequence of so much being done in e-mail is that it is hidden and cannot be discovered and reused by others – this has a huge detrimental effect on an organisation’s overall effectiveness.” However, social media also has similar weaknesses in terms of information overload and as a task interrupter – with some people reporting “stream stress” as they attempt to keep up on Twitter. The danger is that we may just end up with a raft of emails being replaced with a raft of pings from different sources. Social networking sites also posed problems for some, with users having to manage the blurring boundaries between work and personal life to maintain professionalism. As one Australian father explained: “If I had my time again starting Facebook accounts, I’d probably start a work Facebook account and a personal Facebook account, just to separate those two areas. Because sometimes, you know, you do forget to filter. I’ve got filter groups set up: the ones that shouldn’t go to everybody that sometimes do, the ones that should go to work colleagues…People you’re actually researching with or have a more business relationship with shouldn’t see some of those things that sometimes they’ll see because they slip through that media commentator tweeted, net. So, having two separate accounts for business and work would tongue in cheek, that they’d worked out that have been a good way to start it, but today it’s so ingrained, it’s almost they needed three Google+ circles: one called impossible to separate those out into two separate accounts easily.” Twitter for very public posts, another called Google+’s circles goes some way to explicitly partition different aspects Facebook to stay in touch with friends and a of our lives. However one social media commentator tweeted, tongue in third circle called LinkedIn to keep up with cheek, that they’d worked out that they needed three Google+ circles: one called Twitter for very public posts, another called Facebook to stay work colleagues. in touch with friends and a third circle called LinkedIn to keep up with work colleagues. There’s a lot of truth in that. Undoubtedly there is a role for social media in the mix of channels that we use to communicate with people at work – but it is early days for this fledgling channel and the email inbox (like it or loathe it) is likely to be with us for a while. The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 13
  8. 8. Introducing the balanced communications diet background – that way you have to consciously log on to access it rather than simply flick from one window to another. Unplug your internet connection, so that you are forced to concentrate on a single task rather than succumb to the temptation to surf. The way that we work has been changed fundamentally by the technologies that we use. New skills have been created and old skills have become almost obsolete. Ways of communication with others have changed. Accessibility to knowledge has increased, but being awash in too much information has threatened our ability both to process that information and also acquire new knowledge. There are clear positive and negatives here. Rules – establish rules for yourself. One man interviewed had done this: “I’ve now got it [my Blackberry] set to turn off at 5 o’clock in the evening and it turns on at 9 o’clock in the morning.” Some people carry two devices around: one for work and one for personal activities. Aside from the inconvenience of an extra slab of technology to carry around, this can strictly partition working day from family time. However, even if you bring your own device to work or use your work phone to organise your personal life, there are a number of developments that can help this partitioning. Having a virtual desktop in the cloud for work can ensure that you are logged in to that space by choice rather than by default. There are also innovations that are being developed to automatically tag things as work or personal so that the device can start to divide your life into two modes. This is where well-being at work comes in. Well-being is essentially defined as a state of positive functioning. It is more than just personal happiness and takes into account factors such as sense of purpose and direction. In the Cambridge study it was found that those who frequently felt overwhelmed or constantly distracted by communications technology were more likely to report a reduction in their perception of well-being. This is one of those areas where technology itself is not to blame. To improve the quality and productivity of our working lives, small changes may be required. Throwing away technology is neither desirable nor practical – but changing our use of it could result in better productivity and more time to ourselves. To improve well-being, we need to look at how we are using technology and whether or not we can improve our perception of control over its use. The main problem highlighted was that smart devices and laptops made it possible to check on things at work at any time of the day as well as enabling colleagues to contact them more frequently. Moreover, a “quick email check” could easily turn into several hours of use. So what can we do to achieve a better communications diet for business? There are 5 things to consider: 1 2 3 4 5 Location Rules Awareness Education If you are a home worker, establishing boundaries between the office space and the rest of the house is important. Close the office door at the end of the day and leave the phone and laptop behind you. The same rule applies when you are on leave or not working. Using presence information to define times when you are available for interruption can provide people with a guide as to when and how is the best time to contact you. Appearing offline on instant messenger is not a crime and ‘busy’ really does mean that you don’t want to be interrupted. Similarly, setting time limits for doing email can also prove beneficial: “I turn email off one day a week – I get so much more done on that day.” Some corporates have gone one step further and imposed rules to help employees to turn off. BMW Germany, for example, only allows employees access to their email accounts half an hour before and half an hour after a shift. This extreme strategy may not work for all organisations, however – particularly those who operate flexible working policies or work across global boundaries and timezones. Awareness – understand how you are using technology when you are working. Awareness of use is the key to achieving balance and well-being when using communications technology, largely because most people appear to be unaware just how much they use it and how habitual their use is. Try recording the ways in which you are using technology at work for a few days. You can then try to aim for a more ideal level, whatever you define that level to be. Balance Location – With reports of people falling down stairs whilst attempting to email someone on their smart phone and many examples of inappropriate business conversations in crowded and noisy train carriages, location is actually becoming a very key aspect to ensuring that business communication is effective. Just because we can work anywhere doesn’t mean we should. For email the first thing to do is think before you put finger to keyboard. For a start, doing a considered reply to a complex topic is probably better done on a laptop than a smartphone – for one thing you tend to gravitate towards a curt one-sentence message on a smart phone because you are attempting to type using a tiny keypad whilst squinting at a small screen. Many of these curt replies can cause significant misunderstandings and result in yet more email to distract you. There is also always the option of a good, old fashioned phone call rather than default to an automatic game of email tennis. Another way of exerting a degree of control over location is to move from a default of always on, to choosing when you are on. Turn your phone off when in meetings so that there is no temptation to be distracted by your device silently flashing at you at inappropriate moments. Turn email off on your desktop rather than having it silently beckoning you to look at it as it sits running in the 14 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 15
  9. 9. Many of the participants in the Cambridge study found out startling things about themselves when they became more aware of how they were using technology! One British male reported: “It highlighted to me that I just get up, go to work, fight with people, come home and watch TV. And that’s it really, that’s all I do Monday to Sunday.” “I didn’t realise quite how much I used my mobile until recording it down,” said another British man. Doing this study actually raised my own awareness of technology usage at work. I realised that I was really good at starting things but very bad at finishing them, because I was constantly being distracted and interrupted. I was also doing email for about 42% of I was also doing email for about 42% of my my working day – leaving little time for me to get much else done. working day – leaving little time for me to get As a result I have cut email use down to 30 minutes at the beginning of the day and 30 minutes at the end. This, of course, also requires much else done. As a result I have cut email users to raise awareness of communications preferences to others – use down to 30 minutes at the beginning of sending me an urgent email during the day will not get an instant the day and 30 minutes at the end. response. However a phone call and/or a text message will. It now says this in my email signature banner and my out of office reply so that others know that this is the best way to contact me with urgent issues. By getting teams or work groups to discuss their own communication preferences with each other, productivity could be significantly enhanced. Education – this is really around establishing guidelines and cultural norms around acceptable use of communication channels. Establishing conventions such as “no email after 5.30pm”, asking “is this the right channel for this message?” and allowing individuals to broadcast their communication preferences are all part of the process of educating the workforce. Many organisations are establishing organisational communication etiquette and even providing training courses on the appropriate use of communication and clear language within their business. Even simple things like establishing rules on when or when not to use ‘reply to all’ in email messages or how to construct meaningful subject lines can make a huge difference. Behaviours often come from the top – so it is critical for leaders to display appropriate communication behaviours themselves. One British female summed it up nicely: “I agree that it’s all in our control; however, habits are hard to break and it’s also difficult when it is embedded into an organisation’s culture. I think we need to remember to talk to each other, to get up from our desks and talk to people or to pick up the phone.” As new communication tools become available, some employees often need to be educated in order to understand their benefits. In some companies there are reverse mentoring schemes, where new graduates mentor senior managers through the raft of emerging communication tools such as social media so that they understand both their strengths and weaknesses. Balance – as with everything, moderation is all. Moderation of communications technology, whether it is by location, rules, or something else, is ultimately a way to achieve a certain sense of balance. Self control plays a critical part in this. If people want to become more productive and lessen the potential negative impact of technology, they need to make a conscious effort to control how they use it. MIT’s professor of Affective Computing, Roz Picard, believes that the larger problem is that people really are not aware of when they are in control of technology and when technology is in control of them. According to Dan Ariely, there is no perfect way to exert self control – people are better at controlling themselves in certain situations than others. However, people who are more easily distracted by technology must, first, become aware of it before they can start to control their behaviour. However, Ariely also points out that self control may be less straightforward than we may think. What looks like exquisite self-control can actually just be an instance of rule-following. Selfcontrol has to do with being aware of the potential long-term consequences of an action and acting accordingly, even when the short-term consequences would be pleasurable. Rule-following, in contrast, only requires that one does what one is told. For example, if someone is told that they must check their email only twice a day and then does so, they are not exhibiting traditional selfcontrol, but are simply following a rule. While self-control will likely play a big role in how much modern technology affects any one individual, it is important to keep in mind how self-control is characterised and how it differs between individuals. A lot of the concerns about what communications technology is doing to us are about the degree to which it stops us talking to each other in a traditional way – emailing the person sitting opposite us makes no sense and yet we often do exactly that. Establishing a balance around communications use at work is vital. Anyone who has sat through a seminar doing their email on their smart phone only to suddenly realise they have no concept of what has actually happened in the real people are better at controlling themselves in world needs to ask themselves why they were at that certain situations than others. However, people seminar. This is partially around establishing boundaries who are more easily distracted by technology for acceptable use of communications technologies – in meetings, both face-to-face and virtual, switching must, first, become aware of it before they can everything off should be acceptable behaviour. start to control their behaviour. However, the point that balance is achieved is probably unique to each and every one of us. Some people feel lost without their mobiles while others relish time such as on planes when they cannot use them. Regardless of your preference, one significant benefit to well-being is to have at least some technology down time – here’s one female interviewee’s view on a perfect holiday: “We often go away to a cottage in the middle of a Welsh Valley and there’s no broadband, no mobile signal, no excuses to take a quick look at the inbox – it’s the only way to get away from it all.” Taking a tech break can also reduce feelings of dependence on technology. 16 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 17
  10. 10. Future implications In the future it is likely that the distinction between smart phone, laptop and tablet will disappear as they all merge into one single device providing multiple business functionality. There are many advantages to this – not having to lug around multiple phones and hefty hardware with you everywhere for a start. It also means that the hassle of synching multiple devices together starts to disappear– not to mention the cost of buying multiple devices. However, as employees also further blur the lines between work and play by bringing their own device to work (discussed extensively in the first WorkShift paper [5]), there is a risk that switching off from the digital business world entirely will become more and more difficult. Ironically one thing that is coming along to help us navigate this ocean of technology is more technology! Intelligent personal assistants like Siri (from Apple) and Majel (from Google) are evolving to help us prioritise and aggregate multiple communication channels and alert us in any situation where someone does need an urgent response. As previously mentioned, there are also applications evolving to help us establish partitions between our business and personal lives – if we define which mode we are in, it will determine what the appropriate content to present to us is. However, ultimately, it is up to us to maintain a healthy communications diet and that is really about getting a balance that suits us as individuals. Establish rules that help you to become more productive – and educate people as to where, when and how it is best to contact you if there is a genuine need for speed. However, don’t forget to build in some “me” time – time each day to “unplug” and unwind. Blackberry, Apple and Orange are not the only fruits! 18 The Balanced Communications Diet for Business References [1] Mieczakowski, A., Goldhaber, T. and Clarkson, J. (2011), Culture, Communication and Change: Report on an Investigation of the Use and Impact of Modern Media and Technology in Our Lives, University of Cambridge Engineering Design Centre. [2] Karasek, R.A. and Theorell, T.G. (1990), Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity and the Reconstruction of Working Life, New York: Basic Books. [3] Ophir, E., Nass, C.& Wagner, A.D. (2009), Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers, www.pnas.org_cgi_doi_10.1073_pnas.0903620106 . [4] Chen, D.J.Q. & Lim, V.K.G. (2011), Impact of Cyberloafing on Psychological Engagement, Academy of Management Meeting, San Antonio, Texas. [5] Millard, N.J. and Gillies, S. (2011), WorkShift: The Future of the Office, BT White Paper. The Balanced Communications Diet for Business 19
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