I’m old enough to remember a simpler time in the office, when talking — whether in person or on the phone — was the main way to communicate. I once had a job where I filled out those pink “While You Were Out” slips for employees who had stepped away from their desks.
Then, in the 1990s, came email, and things were never the same. Besides delivering a serious blow to the sellers of those pieces of paper, email made communicating with people incredibly — and, at first, delightfully — easy.
Now, a few decades later, people constantly complain that their email inboxes are unmanageable. And many more technologies have joined the workplace party. We can now use cellphones, instant messaging, text messaging, social media, corporate intranets and cloud applications to communicate at work.
Something may have been lost as we adopted these new communication tools: the ability to concentrate.
“Nobody can think anymore, because they’re constantly interrupted,” said Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor and author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone.”
“Technology has enabled this expectation that we always be on.” Workers fear the repercussions that could result if they are unavailable, she said.
The intermingling of work and personal life adds to the onslaught, as people communicate about personal topics during the workday, and about work topics when they are at home.
According to a 2011 article in The Ergonomics Open Journal, electronic communication tools can demand constant switching, which contributes to a feeling of “discontinuity” in the workplace. On the other hand, people sometimes deliberately introduce interruptions into their day as a way to reduce boredom and to socialize, the article said.
We’re only beginning to understand the workplace impact of new communication tools. The use of such technology in the office is “less rational than we would like to think,” said Steve Whittaker a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Sometimes, “it’s one person who’s an evangelist,” he said. “They will start using a particular thing, and they will bring other people along with them.”
More tech-oriented types might favor the latest new communication “toy,” while others, like me, are less enthusiastic. In the name of simplicity, I even try to avoid instant messaging, but I also can’t help worrying that I am missing out.
Plenty of workplace advice focuses on how we, as individuals, can manage our technology, but in many cases this is a collective, team-level issue, Perlow said.
It’s important to distinguish between collaborative and one-on-one communication, he said. Cloud-based systems are meant for sharing and editing documents, and they can enable people in different cities to work together in real time. Internal social media pages can be useful for seeking and sharing knowledge.
To lessen the disruptive nature of email and other messages, teams need to discuss how to alter their work process to allow blocks of time where they can disconnect entirely, Perlow said.
“I don’t think you can do it without leadership support,” she added.