Businesses that are serious about tackling information overload need to look beyond the technology and change their company culture, says silicon.com’s Steve Ranger.
I once had a colleague who had a policy of only reading email if it was addressed to him and him alone.
As a result he would cheerfully ignore any CCed or ‘reply all’ missives that made their way around the office. His assumption was that if the message was really important they’d either send it to him again, or actually come and speak to him about it face to face.
At the time I thought this was a slightly silly affectation, but now I understand it as an electronic coping mechanism – a way of filtering out the noise which can otherwise be deafening.
I thought of him when I read a report which found the majority of UK managers are working longer hours, have higher workloads and are more stressed compared with those ten years ago.
It’s a grim picture and what is striking is that technology, rather than helping bosses to navigate through their day more efficiently, is making life more difficult.
Managers report an average of around 40 more emails per day compared to ten years ago, and an unlucky five per cent reported at least another 100 messages clogging their inboxes, according to the research by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM).
Perhaps unsurprisingly the mobile phone was top of the list of technologies that managers wish had never been invented, the research found.
The widespread adoption of mobile phones, and more recently mobile email, has increased the pressure on managers to respond whenever and wherever they are, and the ILM says this temptation to work longer hours is having an impact on stress levels.
Add in the more recent pressures of Twitter and instant messaging and the nightmare landscape is complete.
What’s worse is that technologies such as videoconferencing – which once held out the promise of revolutionising the way offices work for the better – have had little impact. So what has gone wrong?
One way of looking at this is that our…
…ability to use new technology has run ahead of our understanding about how to use it, and is therefore causing a backlash against what would otherwise be useful tools.
Take email as an example: IT company Atos has been widely reported to be planning to ban the use of email within 18 months because staff have been spending up to 20 hours a week dealing with messages. The plan is to replace it with social media style messaging instead.
Of course, the danger here is that you simply replace an email deluge with a flood of social media spam – because mostly the tool isn’t the problem, what’s wrong is how we use it.
Right now, I receive somewhere in the region of 200 to 300 emails a day, of which around five are any use. That’s not fault of email itself – rather it’s the fault of the people that hit ‘send’ without thinking.
And just as it’s too easy to send pointless emails, it’s just as wasteful to spend time reading them: it’s all too easy convince yourself that you are working hard when really you are simply succumbing to digital drudgery. Reading emails CCed to dozens of people and other electronic busy-work might seem like a good use of time, but it rarely is.
We send email for all sorts of reasons – occasionally to share useful information, but mostly to show off, to cover our backs, to tick boxes and to demonstrate how busy and important we are.
A question of culture
Keeping those more base motivations in check is nothing to do with the technology and all to do with company culture.
It’s not just employees that need to learn to do things differently – management need to rethink their approach too. Digital communications are also making the working week longer and workers’ stress levels higher, and it’s tempting for management to slyly acquiesce to that simply because the technology allows it – answering an odd email on the train for example.
Along with introducing good email etiquette policies, enlightened companies should – for the good of their staff – also implement guidelines around when workers should not be on contactable. No email after 9pm, or at weekends, perhaps?
This might mean taking a slight hit on productivity but perhaps it would mean a more productive staff in the long term, because right now it’s hard to shake the feeling that mangers spend more time managing their technology than doing their job.
How do you protect yourself from digital overload? Share your tips by posting a reader comment below.
Steve Ranger is the editor of silicon.com and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, culture and business for over a decade. You can find him tweeting @steveranger.