In my recent NewHabits-NewGoals time management programs I have noticed a disturbing trend: now, there is always at least 10% of the class that is unable to comply with my request to turn off their Blackberrys or iPhones for the duration of the class.

This needs to be put in context, however.

None of the people sitting in my classes are emergency room surgeons, firemen or policemen. I am not delivering these programs in a war zone, during a hurricane or in the middle of a tornado.

Yet, they find it absolutely essential to be checking their email every few minutes.

When I ask the obvious question: “Why?” the response has always been a modified version of the following explanation given to me by a banker with a company headquartered overseas, in Canada. She once failed to respond to an email from Canada within an hour or two. She then received a call from her boss telling her that her lack of responsiveness had been noticed, and that he had been asked by someone in headquarters to intervene, and do something about the “problem.”

That this banker was an executive seemed not to matter. She was expected to constantly monitor her email at all times. Period. After all, hadn’t she been given a Blackberry?

Welcome to the latest technique in micromanagement.

For aspiring micro-managers, it’s easy: simply give the employee the gift of a Blackberry. Then, send them “important” emails at odd hours (5pm is a good choice.) When you don’t get a response within minutes, make a critical comment, and mention their need to improve their time management skills. Praise them for their responsiveness as they inevitably knuckle under in time, and thank them for becoming a good “team player.”

For the manager, it’s a case of “mission accomplished.” The employee now understands how important it is to respond to email quickly. The desired behaviour has been put in place.

We can thank the Blackberry for taking away the last excuse that employees had for not doing exactly what their bosses want them to do, immediately.

However, what effect does this have on overall corporate productivity?

I remember a company I did business with that had a policy of not installing voicemail on their employee’s phones. (This was in the days before cell phones.) In their commitment to serve their internal and external customers, they insisted that whenever the phone rang, even for executives, that it had to be answered.

This well-intentioned policy had the unintended consequence of pressuring employees to develop the bad habit of dropping whatever they were doing to answer the phone. Back then, they had no idea who the caller was as there was no caller-id provided. A call to a wrong number took precedence over whatever the employee was doing at the moment.

While that ancient practice would make us smile and shake our heads, the new habit of checking and re-checking email over and over is even more destructive.

While your phone might not ring every day, the same isn’t true for email — the norm is to receive not just one but several messages per day. An employee that must respond to email quickly must therefore check their email many, many times per day, just to make sure that something more important or more urgent hasn’t just been sent.

To get at that item, they must read virtually all their email, just in case one of them is critical.

The manager might think they are getting a responsive employee by giving them a Blackberry, and following the steps I described above.

In fact, they are turning their professional into a drone who is incapable of planning their day, and isn’t trusted to decide what to work on from one moment to the next.

If the author of “Flow” – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly – is to believed, it takes an employee 20 minutes to get back to their most productive state after they interrupt themselves for any reason, including email.

The professional becomes an unproductive drone.

What drives this crazy state of affairs is a fear on the part of employees, who knuckle under a regime that they freely acknowledge is destructive because they are afraid of negative repercussions. Better for them to do the stupid thing they despise over and over again, than to be the odd one out who gets called up by their manager for having poor skills.

Many companies who adapted electronic email devices have seen productivity drop and fear rise, as these bad habits become ubiquitous. They are beginning to ask themselves — how did we get to this place?

A few are reversing it.

They are putting in place smartphone policies that limit their use to certain hours, and banning their use on vacations and public holidays. They are actually training their employees how to manage themselves in a way that expands the amount of “quality time” they spend at their desk each day, by teaching them how to get into and sustain the flow state. They are actively removing the requirement to respond to email by a given time, and are using the phone as a way to communicate emergencies, which is improving the quality of delegation, requesting and promising.

In other words, they are actively turning the tables on bad habits that have sprung up around the latest technology, and taking charge of the fear-driven culture change that has become the norm in too many companies.

Image: Cheo70

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