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By Francis Wade

 

Sunday, July 1, 2012.

In a recent seminar, I heard a familiar story that gets repeated in my time-management programmes: an executive gets upset when he fails to get an immediate response to his email.

Little does he know that his insistence starts a process that turns his employees into morons.

Unfortunately, he often can't see the negative effect of his actions on employees' productivity, but here are the two unwanted sequences of events in slow motion.

Step 1: An executive sends an urgent email and waits for a reply.

Step 2: When his impatience grows beyond its limits, he makes a call to the recipient, or to the person's boss.

Step 3: In an annoyed and bothered voice, he asks why the person hasn't responded. It's a rhetorical question, of course, as he doesn't really want to know. He wants to press home the point that whatever the recipient was doing was less important. He may even imply that better time-management skills are needed and explain that this is why company BlackBerry's are given out.

Step 4: The prior three steps are repeated several times until the staff gets the picture. They need to check their email all the time just in case something important from someone higher up in the organisation has been sent.

Step 5: When everyone 'learns' the lesson, they quickly become unproductive morons whose main accomplishment each day is to answer lots of email as quickly as possible, even if they are in meetings, having a conversation, driving on the highway, or using the toilet. Moronic behaviour becomes the norm and spreads into weekends, holidays, vacations, and off-hours.

The second way to turn employees into morons has to do with office space. It also takes five steps.

Step 1: An executive makes a commitment to cut overhead costs. The office, they observe, has too many offices with closed doors that altogether cost too much.

Step 2: He comes to believe that replacing offices with small cubicles will do the trick, and will give him a chance to keep an eye on everyone.

Step 3: The cubicles are installed.

Step 4: Employees struggle to remain focused, as visible, audible, and sensory distractions prevent them from entering the most highly productive working state - called "Flow" by Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi.

Step 5: The best employees leave in frustration, while those who remain take up the status of full-time morons who must, in extreme cases, take sick-days to get their best work done.

In each case, the executives involved are making a sincere attempt to make things better, but end up doing the very opposite because they don't understand the inner workings of professional productivity.

Their ignorance leads them to implement solutions that simply don't work, and they are unaware of the latest research in both these areas that make it abundantly clear that their initial hypotheses are simply wrong.

Fortunately, the research is also clear about what needs to happen to help solve both of these problems.

Solution: Ban Urgent Email

Email is an extremely unreliable medium for handling emergencies or emotionally sensitive matters. Only 79 per cent of email sent is ever received, according to the latest statistics, due to network and spam problems.

Furthermore, using email for urgent communication forces everyone to keep checking, just in case something important turns up. Less than 1.0 per cent of email is urgent, but the other 99 per cent has to be scanned, just in case. In the worst situations, the entire company picks up the habit, wasting tremendous amounts of time. The solution is to put in place a policy to never use email for urgent matters, and instead, to use a phone call, face-to-face conversation, or, with caution, BlackBerry Messenger.

Solution: Eliminate Distractions

There are a number of studies linking professional productivity with the ability of professionals to find quiet, undisturbed time. Designing an office with small cubicles and low walls promotes distractions and flies in the face of this research.

Keeping employees productive in the Internet age is not as easy as it seems, especially when so many powerful electronic tools are available. It takes great awareness to avoid the two problems listed in this article, but developing it can prevent a company from turning well-meaning colleagues into morons.

Francis Wade is a consultant with Framework Consulting. Send feedback to columns@fwconsulting.com

 

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