About a year ago, I published a question in a Blackberry forum asking how the devices had helped to make professionals more productive.
The responses I received were typified by the one that I remember the most: “I am more productive because I can check my email on the train to and from work.”
This seemed like a reasonable response at the time. As a person who gets a bit nervous when I have nothing productive to do, I could relate. While I don’t take the train, the value of converting “down time” to productive time is a pretty attractive one.
And apparently, I’m not alone.
A recent survey of 1 million users in 34 countries showed that 62% believed that their work productivity was “much better” due to new technology. 75% consider the opportunity provided by devices such as smartphones and laptops to remain in constant contact with work as a positive development.
Apparently, “productivity” has been redefined.
According to our new definition, productivity has something to do with two things: converting “down time” to work time, and being able to “stay in touch” with what’s happening at work at all times. This kind of commitment used to be associated with “Type A” executives, but nowadays anyone with the right tools can join in the fun.
“Fun” might be a strong word, but many of us like to find new ways to be effective, and like to feel as if we’re getting better at managing our time.
However, what’s actually happening in the life of many professionals is not amusing at all. Their companies have taken the opportunity given them by technology and the recession to convince employees to spend more “down time” doing work. At the same time, they send a subtle message that “staying in touch” with work also means being available 24 hours a day for 52 weeks of the year.
Converting “Down Time” Nowadays, it seems, everyone with a smartphone has gotten into the habit of continuously trying to convert “down time” into useful, work time. Here are some everyday examples of ways in which many professionals are converting their “down time.”
- - a manager driving on the highway at 70 m.p.h. sends a text to his team (while spilling hot coffee into his lap)
- - an engineer in a meeting that’s going slowly, checks her email and replies (missing two action items assigned to her)
- - an accountant watching his child play baseball on Saturday morning closes a deal in the fourth inning via cellphone (and lies to his son about seeing him make his first catch ever)
- - a supervisor attending 3 days of personal productivity training is unable to leave her smartphone untouched for more than 15 minutes (and later complains that the trainer was ineffective)
- - a consultant speaking to a client on the phone remembers that he should have sent an urgent message to a colleague, and quietly does so (even as the client notes the sudden lapse in attention and interprets it as a lack of interest in continuing the relationship)
- - a hard driving attorney once again takes his smartphone to the urinal where he can multi-task (… and is noticed by his boss’ husband who happened to borrow his smartphone just five minutes earlier)
- - a family cheers in unison when executive-Mom forgets her smartphone at home 5 hours into the annual vacation (and falls into despair when FedEx delivers it the next day)
I recently asked a client: “How did your big presentation to the executive team go?” She responded: “OK… but the CEO spent the entire hour on his (expletive) Blackberry.”
This was bad news for my client, whose project was now being viewed by the CEO as another chunk of his “down time.”
If these are all examples of attempts to convert “down time” into useful time, take note of the way in which “down time” has been expanded. This is more than filling in the time that would be spent sitting on a train. The habit has invaded every nook and cranny of our lives, sparing no-one, and costing us dearly.
At this point, many of you reading are probably shaking your heads at some of the poor etiquette on display. I did the same, until I began to think of the mindset of the employees involved.
All the habits listed above were developed by professionals who were well intended — they were trying to boost their productivity by converting “down time” into something of value. Unfortunately, once we humans are hooked on a habit, it’s hard to stop, and we end up employing it inappropriately, much to the annoyance of others in our lives. In that moment, the fun has disappeared and the habit has become an empty, automatic practice that does more harm than good.
The worse part is that in many companies, executives are leading the way by example, as they are often the first users of these devices and the employees most likely to squeeze work into every available minute of their lives.
They are also the ones who are unwilling to sever the connection between themselves and their colleagues, even for a few hours each day.
Staying in Touch With Work A friend of mine once told me the story of a manager of rambunctious employee who was essential to the organization, but frequently complained and threatened to leave. In the space of a few months, he got married, bought a house and had a baby.
After these happy events, his manager passed my friend in the hall on hearing the latest it of happy news and whispered conspiratorially: “I have him now!” In other words, with his new family and financial obligations, the rambunctious employee was unlikely to raise more trouble, and would probably settle into a comfortable routine of corporate service with a steady eye on his pension, benefits and 401(k).
The point of the story? There are executives and managers who are blithely offering the gift of smartphones to their employees, and in some companies it’s seen as a reward, and a status symbol.
What many of them know, however, is that when an employee accepts the device, they are likely to join the group of the always-reachable, and engage in many of the behaviors that their higher-ups are practicing, such as: – sending and receiving messages at 2:30 am – using weekends, vacations and holidays to conduct company business – implicitly agreeing to respond to all messages within a short time-frame – interrupting ANY activity to “find out what my boss wants”
(If the stories told on YouTube and on blogs are true, then _anything_ can be interrupted nowadays by smartphone use!)
To put it in more Machiavellian terms, companies have found a way to take time and attention that employees used to spend on their own, with their families and with their friends, and convert it to company time. It starts with the gift of a smartphone.
While I truly doubt that there is some master plan, don’t doubt for a minute that a manager doesn’t know the difference between her employees who are always-reachable from those who aren’t. Companies can make big gains in productivity by simply giving away smartphones to their employees, while ignoring the added stress that gets created.
There are some companies that are noticing what is happening, however.
Enlightened companies take a page out of the medical profession, which has long realized that it’s important to maintain some kind of boundaries in their professionals’ lives. Companies can put in place policies that clearly delineate time spent “at work,” “on call” and “away from work.” They recognize that these are three distinct modes that must be enforced if employees are expected to function at their best.
Most employees, however, find themselves in un-enlightened companies and must make their own way, starting with 3 steps they must take.
Their first step is to identify the unproductive habits in their time management system. They can do the kind of analysis I describe on my website (www.2time-sys.com) to find the strong and weak spots.
The second step is to create an improvement plan that outlines the habits to be changed, along with some target dates. This gives them some realistic goals to heard towards.
The third step requires them to create an environment to make the habit changes easier to effect. Unfortunately, most habits do not change easily or quickly, and the right blend of supports can make all the difference.
Employees who have begun this personal journey need to make a plan to enlighten the executive team. Most smartphone use started with the CEO and her direct reports, and they are the ones who, in all likelihood, introduced, for example, a culture of 24 hour availability to the organization.
In an effort like this, employees need allies at all levels to help demonstrate that bad habits developed in the executive suite can wreak havoc when rolled out to an entire company. (There is a growing body of data available that can be used in this effort.) In an intervention, executives can be asked to imagine an all-company meeting in which half the attendees spend most of the meeting on their smartphones, lost in cyber-space. (Some would simply argue that they are following the fine example of their CEO!)
If the executive team can be convinced that these behaviors are destructive, then the company can move to specify some specific changes.
For example, the US Federal Government has banned the use of cell-phones by its employees while they are driving and conducting government business. In part, that’s because of obvious safety reasons.
From a productivity stand-point, however, it makes perfect sense. Other policies can be introduced to limit the use of smartphones and laptops during off hours, for starters. (In some companies, turning off all messaging devices between 12:00 am and 6:00 am would be a major step.)
Each company needs to look at its culture, as well as its strategy, and phase in these changes in a way that makes sense. They need to allow for the fact that habit change takes time, and that a new culture could not be born in an instant.
The single employee who decides to change their company has a very difficult task on her hands, however, as she realizes that smartphones have done more to change company culture in the past few years than any vision statement or 2 day retreat. She needs to appreciate that some executives may decide that they like the way things are going, and don’t want to change a thing. Those companies who take this route probably won’t see any immediate fallout as employees cling to their jobs for fear of losing them, but they’ll pay later. At some point in the future, productivity will be impacted on a large scale, as employees burn themselves out and the bottom line suffers.
It’s much better to make the small, enlightened changes now, than to wait until the cost is higher and the effort required seems to be impossible to garner.
All it takes to get started is one or two employees who are willing to redefine what productivity means for themselves and their companies, in favour of long-term results that are sustainable.