FirstCuts June 2010: Issue 34
Framework Consulting Inc.
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FirstCuts - a source of provocative ideas for Caribbean businessthinkers
Time management and productivity in the era of smartphones.
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It’s been some time since the last issue, and I have lots of things to blame for that. There’s a recession underway, plus I also moved residences, AND there’s currently a state of emergency here in Jamaica, caused in part by a man nicknamed “Dudus.” In addition, I launched MyTimeDesign 2.0 back in December. So, I’ve been quite busy—and wondering whether I should join the legions of professionals who use Blackberrys and other smartphones. But I’m a bit concerned … When I started leading time management programmes several years
ago, I never had a problem convincing people to turn off their smartphones during the course. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a shift. In each of the five programmes I’ve led over the past few months, there’s been an increase in the number of those who cannot do so, either because they’re scared or because of ingrained habits. Is this the new definition of productivity? Am I doomed to follow suit if I purchase a smartphone? -- Francis P.S. Don’t forget the podcast page: www.fwconsulting.podomatic .com
Smartphone Era Productivity "How
This question was muttered to me by an executive as he was describing the time pressures being felt in his Caribbean workplace. His company was one of the first to encourage the widespread use of smartphones, giving almost all employees a tool that the CEO and other executives had found to be invaluable. However, the result was far from what he expected. From what he could tell, 24/7 access to email, voice mail, and instant messages were proving to be a massive distraction. He could hardly conduct a meeting without watching people’s heads dip into their laps as they diverted their attention to some message on their smartphones and away from the meeting. Some even used their devices during one-on-one conversations, pretending to listen while they sent, or searched for, something more important in cyberspace. A few claimed that they were “good at multitasking” — but as far as the executive was concerned, that was a lot of crap. The poor etiquette was one issue, but he was more concerned about the obvious drop in personal productivity. Issue 1
Too many of his employees were doing half-finished work and missing important deadlines as they zigged and zagged from one task to another, never bringing anything to completion.
I told him that the problem was likely to get worse... when every employee (got) access to a smartphone. The habits he deplored were likely to multiply.
They were busy, all right, but they were wasting tons of time. The executive remembered, from the TV show M*A*S*H, that even battlefield surgeons used triage to separate one case from another when there was a flood of casualties. They certainly didn’t jump from patient to patient like scared rabbits. Yet, that was what his staff was doing — going from one unfinished task to the next, with their smartphones in
hand. How could he reverse the seemingly inevitable drop in productivity? After speaking with a few members of his staff, I had nothing but bad news. Based on my observations of companies around the world that had adopted smartphones, I told him that the problem was likely to get worse if he didn’t intervene. It was reasonable to assume that every single employee would, at some point, have access to a smartphone. The habits that he deplored now were simply likely to multiply. Here’s what I explained — and I urged him not to take my word for it, but to read the statistics I would later share with him. Today, we have a perfect storm of conditions that have turned email into a burden: outdated habits, a rapid increase in messages, the spreading use of smartphones, and an ongoing recession. These factors are collectively producing the productivity issues being experienced. Altogether, they’re exerting a powerful force that’s responsible for shaping corporate culture in many companies — far more than any value statements,
vision exercises, or training programmes. They influence behaviours in ways that are unavoidable. To
OLD HABITS The habits that we use to manage our time — and, in particular, electronic messages — have grown stale. Here’s why. When email was introduced to the workplace in the 1990s, there were no classes to learn best practices for processing messages. At best, we took courses that taught us how to use Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, but they didn’t address the habits necessary to be productive using this new technology. This wasn’t too much of a problem at the time, as the volume of email was miniscule — and, as employees, we simply taught ourselves our own way of processing messages. Many of us independently came up with something close to the following process: 1. Open email programme first thing in the morning, and keep it open throughout
productivity, companies need to put in place innovative individual training, buttressed by new policies. But to understand why these solutions work,
we must understand the four conditions that are producing the perfect storm.
the day. 2. Allow email to stream into your inbox continuously. 3. Check email periodically, depending on what you expect to receive, perhaps prompted by a flashing graphic icon or audible “ding.”
lazy, disorganised, or lacking in commitment. They’re also not afflicted with the wrong ethnic background, age, gender, or education.
Frequently, however, I meet professionals with 10-30 thousand emails in their Inboxes.
4. Glance at each message once — and if you can’t delete it immediately due to its irrelevance, leave it in the inbox while making a mental commitment to return to it later.
Instead, they’re simply and faithfully following the method they’ve always used to process email at a time when that method has stopped working. Little do they know that the habits they’ve always used are actually creating their current problems because they haven’t been adapted to the new circumstances that exist today. Back then, other forms of messaging — like instant messaging and Twitter — were not even contemplated, yet these
Frequently, however, I meet professionals who have 10,000–30,000 emails in their inboxes. And it’s not because they have a character defect. They’re not
now make up an important part of many employees’ days. AN INCREASE IN MESSAGE VOLUME An increase in the number of electronic messages is a fact of life in the corporate world, and it will remain that way for the foreseeable future. The question is this: How much will messages increase, and what impact will that have on productivity? My casual observation is that Caribbean professionals average between 50 and 100 emails per day. The data show that the average global professional receives 147 emails per day in his/her personal and business accounts, which gives us an idea of what’s likely to happen locally. Recent studies conducted by the Radicati Group predict that the number of wireless email accounts will more than triple by 2014. Also, the volume of email sent in a 100-person company was measured at 5.7 million emails per year in 2006, and it’s expected to increase to 8.5 million in 2012. The Caribbean has among the world’s highest rates of mobile penetration, so I expect the number of messages sent and received to also rise as employees
convert to smartphones from regular cell phones. If you’ve ever sent people email and never received a reply, the chances are good that those people are overwhelmed. This wouldn’t happen if their current set of habits could handle higher volume. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case — those habits just don’t scale
If you've ever sent people email and never received a reply, the chances are good that they are overwhelmed.
well, and the four steps fall apart if people continue to use them. That’s just how life is. Cute habits, like putting pictures on a refrigerator door with magnets, are fine when the number of pictures is small — but you produce a mess when the number of pictures becomes too large. Some habits are meant for small numbers, and they must be abandoned or changed when the numbers increase. This new increased
environment of messages
demands new habits to deal with them. Otherwise, electronic messages end up falling through the cracks, languishing in inboxes for email, voice mail, social networks, etc., for months and years at a time. NEW SMARTPHONE TECHNOLOGY After the creation of email, the invention of the smartphone is probably the most important innovation to impact individual productivity. Smartphones free users from their desks, laptops, and offices — and they keep people in touch with others who want to reach them, and vice versa. The miracle is that this happens seamlessly at all hours of the day, every day of the year, around the globe. What smartphone users are never told is the degree to which their work habits are likely to change for the worse as a result of using this device. Unfortunately, in many cases the gains made from smartphones are outweighed by the loss of productivity that occurs at the same time. The fact is, most employees are still using the self-taught habits from the 1990s. The results have been disastrous,
something the press is now highlighting in a variety of articles recently published around the world. For example, on June 6 and 7, 2010, The New York Times published a trio of articles on the subject, with the longest entitled “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.” It describes the negative impact on family life that results from using smartphones and other devices. Seven Pounds, a 2009 movie starring Will Smith, highlighted the risk of multitasking using a smartphone at the wheel. Many U.S. states require hands-free devices to use cell phones and smartphones while driving. The old four-step process for email that I described above simply doesn’t make sense in the smartphone era. Trying to follow the old formula leads to constant monitoring of email, an increase in disruptions, and email inboxes that fly further out of control. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has joked about the wandering attention of those Blackberry users whose eyes start to drift toward their smartphones during a conversation. (Click here to access the Seinfeld clip.) They seem unable to resist the disruptive pull provided by the device, a fact that scientists link to a dopamine rush that takes place in the Page 6
brain when new electronic messages are received. Outside of email, there’s another unproductive habit that smartphone use promotes: the practice of answering the phone whenever we hear it (or feel it) ringing. Rudolph Giuliani, candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. president in 2008, gave the world a perfect example when he
stopped to answer his smartphone in the middle of a speech he was giving to a packed audience at the National Rifle Association. (Click here to access the Giuliani clip.) I remember doing some work with a regional telecom company back in the early 2000s, when cell phones were becoming ubiquitous. Company staff somehow developed the unspoken policy of answering their cell phones whenever they rang, which dragged out meetings for hours. Even a presenter would stop in midsentence to answer a cell phone, just like Giuliani. The fact is, radical new technology requires brand new habits and practices
that we consciously choose and refine to ensure no loss of productivity. What’s happening instead is that employees are once again learning how to use the features on smartphones, without rethinking their personal habits and productivity. This is why so many people (over 60% in the U.S.) use their smartphones in the bathroom. It’s also the reason why an executive team (often starting with the managing director) can send 20 emails between 3:00 am and 7:00 am. Old habits don’t always work well with new technology, and it takes a certain amount of awareness to stem the tide of unproductive behaviour. It goes without explanation that people who sit in my time management class for a day and check their smartphones every 15 minutes have wasted their time by attending the course. The same goes for people who sit in a meeting, at their desks, or in a conversation over the phone and allow their attention to drift or to be dragged away from their original purpose. People who interrupt their own speeches to answer their cell phones are also wasting the time of all who are listening. Sometimes,
policies help to ensure a constant flow of random interruptions. Recently, I heard of a company that just reversed a long-standing policy of banning voice mail. The rule used to be that each employee should answer every call, because the call might be from a customer. If that sounds bizarre, consider the effect that a vague opendoor policy has on managerial productivity. It’s not too different from policies that promote open floor plans. These policies all say the same thing to the employee: “Make yourself available for random, constant interruptions.” Smartphones encourage random interruptions in much the same way. This is the reason why a few employees are wising up and refusing to use them. When every employee finally has a smartphone, I expect the number of disruptions to increase as more people are CC’ed on those problemsolving email threads that are sent in the middle of the night. Issue 1
THE RECESSION As if these practices weren’t bad enough, we happen to be in the midst of the Big Recession. This means that executives and managers are generally anxious and
often in a rush to get quick answers. Some managers are going further and accusing their employees who don’t respond quickly enough of having poor time management habits — declaring those employees to be in need of training. These managers are making an implicit threat: “If you don’t drop whatever you’re doing to respond to my requests as fast as I make them, then I’ll find someone else who will.”
that employees are adopting all of the unproductive behaviours of their managers just to keep their jobs. Some are simply quitting, as is the case of a vice president I interviewed. She refused to continue living the kind of lifestyle that we used to associate only with emergency response teams and casualty wards. Being “on call” all the time led to burnout, and she resigned to “spend more time with her family.” All over the world, there are employees who can’t resist the urge to use their smartphones while driving, in spite of the studies showing that drunk drivers demonstrate better response times. The motivation here is not a love for work — it’s the fear of missing something important that might be critical to keeping their jobs. Some bosses just don’t care. They’re too anxious to take in the big picture, and they don’t want to miss being a part of key decisions made before 6:00 am.
This growing fear of repercussions has meant
Making Change Happen Reversing the trend toward greater “un”productivity driven by smartphone use needs to start at the top of the organisation. As we say in the change management business, “The dead fish stinks the worst at the head.” In the smartphone era, the habits that are destroying productivity started, in most cases, in the executive suite. Unlike PCs, which entered companies via IT departments, smartphones were typically first used by executives. Executives are the ones who first demonstrated the unproductive habits that are now being passed down to all levels of the company. In many cases, it was a demanding CEO who taught the company how to engage in the following habits: give partial attention in meetings, conversations, and phone calls as the Blackberry takes away your attention; interrupt activities to check and send messages; take time away from family and friends on weekends, vacations, and holidays; move to 24/7 contact (e.g., 3:00 am messages); and demand quick responses from subordinates, regardless of what they’re doing. Page 8
In some companies, a promotion to management carries an unspoken demand: You must use a smartphone, and you must join in the habits listed above to become a full member of the team. Because these are executive behaviours, they often go unquestioned. Unfortunately, human resources, the traditional defender of employee productivity in most companies, has been slow to take up this particular challenge. Many human resource professionals have not even recognised the problem clearly, and the most they might do is recommend that an individual attend a time management class. INDIVIDUAL TRAINING Here at Framework, we’ve been working for several years on helping professionals upgrade their time management systems. Our programmes focus on the habits and practices that operate under the surface of all individual time management systems. Using this approach, it’s possible to upgrade any current time management system to include new technology.
We start by recognising that each person has an individual time management system that has worked to some degree until now. With some insight into how it’s working, and where it’s failing, it’s not too hard to determine which habits need to change to meet the demands of the next decade. Professionals who have the ability to adapt their time management systems to different circumstances and
technologies are well positioned to upgrade and adjust them as needed. It’s the very opposite of being caught using new technologies with old habits. However, upgrading your own system is often not enough. The problem is much bigger than any single employee can solve. In the time management classes I conduct in companies, it’s not too hard to see these habits at work. During a workshop in which all attendees must contend with their unproductive Blackberry habits, it’s obvious which habits are killing the company’s productivity. At the same time, the company’s culture has been shaped by these habits over time, and forging a different culture based on new habits isn’t easy to do.
messages. Unfortunately, for most people this means checking all emails in a continuous manner just to find the boss’s emails. This is a notorious habit that wastes a great deal of time. In such a company, it would take a policy change to allow the right behaviours to override this habit. For example, the new policy could be to never communicate emergencies via email, and instead use facetoface contact, phone calls, or text messages. This kind of policy could drive largescale behaviour changes — and keep employees from making life miserable for their colleagues.
Unfortunately, in reality it’s quite difficult to convince executives to give up their own unproductive behaviours, especially when they’ve used them to get things done from time to time. Many In most cases, it won’t happen CEOs/owners who like to without a change in company send 3:00 am emails and policies. Once again, changes expect immediate answers made by individuals simply are unlikely to want to stop. aren’t enough. What they need to understand POLICY CHANGES is that habits such as these create havoc when the whole Within a company that’s rife company follows their lead with unproductive habits, it’s and every single person hard to enforce a widespread expects the others to be just change. For example, a as “responsive.” These manager may decide to check executives must come to see email on a set schedule, only for themselves that the results to have his boss insist on of these habits are a massive instant responses to her price to pay when everyone Issue 1
indulges in them. Before the policies can change, therefore, the executive team must collectively agree that a change is necessary. They can do this by demonstrating the effect of unproductive habits and also by showing the data that predicts what will happen when widespread smartphone use becomes a reality. For example, the average employee experiences seven interruptions per hour. Data from companies outside the Caribbean that have been using smartphones for a longer time show that smartphone use only increases the number of interruptions. The odd company may overreact and try to ban smartphones altogether, and some have banished
smartphone use in meetings. One wellknown company has made a rule that smartphones cannot be used in board meetings. In essence, they’ve surrendered to unproductive habits altogether, and they’ve decided that the little productive benefit from having smartphones in the boardroom is outweighed by the distraction they cause.
These board members have admitted that they are individually powerless in the face of their addiction to poor smartphone habits. They’ve implemented a draconian rule to prevent their unproductive habits from disrupting their important meetings. Obviously, they saw something that scared them into drastic action.
You may well ask yourself, “What is my company doing?” You may also ask, “If the board has realised that this is a problem for its members, what does it mean for the average employee?” These are important questions. FC
Consider what this means.
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