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A New Productivity for the Smartphone Era

A New Productivity for the Smartphone Era

    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.

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    “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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    More by this author

    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

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    The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

    The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

    Ah, Inbox Zero. An achievement that so many of us long for. It’s elusive. It’s a productivity benchmark. It’s an ongoing battle.

    It’s also unnecessary.

    Don’t get me wrong, the way Inbox Zero was initially termed is incredibly valuable. Merlin Mann coined the phrase years ago and what he has defined it as goes well beyond the term itself.

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    Yet people have created their own definition of Inbox Zero. They’re not using it with the intent that Mann suggested. Instead, it’s become about having nothing left in immediate view. It’s become about getting your email inbox to zero messages or having an empty inbox on your desk that was once filled with papers. It’s become about removing visual clutter.

    But it’s not about that. Not at all.

    Here’s what it actually is, as defined by Mann:

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    “It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” – Merlin Mann

    The Fake Inbox Zero

    The sense of fulfillment one gets from clearing out everything in your inbox is temporary at best, disappointing at worst. Often we find that we’re shooting for Inbox Zero just so that we can say that we’ve got “everything done that needed to be done”. That’s simply not the case.

    Certainly by removing all of your things that sit in your inbox means that they are either taken care of or are well on their way to being taken care of. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is often applied to clearing out your inbox. But unless you’ve actually done something with the stuff, it’s either not worth having in your inbox in the first place or is still sitting in your “mental inbox”. You have to do something with the stuff, and for many people that is a hard thing to do. That’s why Inbox Zero – as defined by Mann – is not achieved as often as many people would like to believe. It’s this “watered down” concept of Inbox Zero that is completed instead. You’ve got no email in your inbox and you’ve got no paper on your desk’s inbox. So that must mean you’re at Inbox Zero.

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    Until the next email arrives or the next document comes your way. Then you work to get rid of those as quickly as possible so that you can get back to Inbox Zero: The Lesser again. If it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, then you get there. But if they require more time, then soon you’ve got more stuff in your inboxes. So you switch up tasks to get to the things that don’t require as much time or attention so that you can get closer to this stripped down variation of Inbox Zero. However, until you deal with the bigger items, you don’t quite get there. Some people feel as if they’ve let themselves (or others) down if they don’t get there. And that, quite frankly, is silly. That’s why this particular version of Inbox Zero doesn’t work.

    So what’s the ultimate way to get to Inbox Zero? Have zero inboxes.

    The inbox is meant to be a stop along the way to your final destination. It’s the place where stuff sits until you’re ready to put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it. So why not skip the inbox altogether? Why not put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it? Because that requires immediate action. It means you need to give the item some thought and attention. You need to step back and look at it rather than file it. that’s why we have a catch-all inbox, both for email and for analog items. It’s allows us to only look at these things when we’re ready to do so.

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    The funny thing is that we can decide when we’re ready to without actually looking at the inbox beforehand. We can look at things on our own watch rather than when we are alerted to or feel the need to. There is no reason why you need an inbox at all to store things for longer than it sits there before you see it. None. It’s a choice. And the choice you should be making is how to deal with things when you first see them rather than when to deal with things you haven’t looked at yet.

    Stop Faking It

    Seeing things in your inboxes is simply using your sight. Looking at things in your inbox when you first see them is using insight.

    Stop checking email more than twice per day. Turn off your alerts. Put your desk’s inbox somewhere that it can be accessed by others and accessed by you when you’re ready to deal with what’s in it. Don’t put it on your desk – that’s productivity poison.

    If you want to get to Inbox Zero — the real Inbox Zero — then get rid of those stops along the way. You’ll find that by doing that you’ll be getting more of the stuff you really want done finished much faster, rather than see them moving along at the speed of not much more than zero.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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