Monday, May 28, 2020

Bad workmen or bad tools?

Handling today’s communications technology wisely

From time to time, people take me to task for my criticism of communication approaches such as instant messaging (IM), cellphones, and BlackBerrys. They usually point out that all these tools can be used positively, especially amongst people who must work together while being geographically separated. It’s a variation on the old saying that only a bad workman blames his tools. The tools, they tell me, aren’t “bad,” just misused. Let’s think about this.

Are cellphones a blessing or a curse? Is instant messaging a useful way of making quick contact or a source of constant, usually unnecessary interruptions? Are the people who must stay “always on” obsessed, or simply responding to a genuine workplace need?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, “yes.” You can encounter situations where a cellphone is a life-saver—and when people seem to use one to talk non-stop about the most pointless and inconsequential topics. When a single IM message saves hours of frustration—and when people waste working time sending and receiving IMs about “American Idol” or gossip about colleagues. No technology of this kind is always a benefit or a curse. It’s bound to be how it’s used that makes it one or the other.

Most people believe they can have the good parts without the bad, but experience suggests that the bad parts keep creeping in and spoiling the show anyhow.

Control-freaks and gossips

My experience suggests that IM is more often used for gossip and trivia than serious communication. Control-freak bosses use it to demand constant updates, and reassurance that the people that they cannot see are actually working (or were, until the IM message interrupted them again). E-mails are useful, but not when people’s in-boxes receive many hundreds in the course of every day.

The problem, I believe, is that the power and availability of modern electronic communications has outstripped the need. We are able to communicate faster, more easily, and more often than the vast majority of working situations require—to say nothing of the rest of life. It’s possible now to contact almost any employee at any time, whether in the middle of the night or on vacation, just about anywhere in the world. But does that make it necessary? Sure, it’s convenient (to those still in the office) to interrupt that honeymoon to ask what the password is to part of the system. But couldn’t you save that happening by a little forethought and proper organization? Just as those people walking around the supermarket asking someone back home to look in the store cupboard and check on whether they need to by potato chips could easily have checked before they left the house.

We all do such things from time to time. What causes the problem is when it becomes a habit and therefore “normal.” When, for example, a recent visitor to my home, supposedly on two week’s vacation, rang the office every day to deal with messages and handle questions. Were the rest of the staff totally incompetent? Could nothing wait until he returned? What was the message being sent along with all those phone calls, except that no one trusted anyone else, unless they were constantly under surveillance?

Interruptive power

I think that what makes the most difference in the “interruptive power” of e-mails and the like is choice. If you can choose what to pay attention to—and when to do it—focusing when you need to and taking a break at other times, they aren’t so much of a problem. Unless, of course, you’re totally bored with your work and spend all your time being “interrupted!” My point is simply that too many distraction —especially those that arrive without choice—are usually bad for concentration and increase stress. Many folk don’t seem to have the willpower and discipline to ignore e-mails until they’re ready to pick them up and read them; at least, not if the e-mail software is open and making little pings every few moments. Nor can they ignore that IM message that is clearly nothing but idle chatter.

It’s the demands from others to meet their schedules that really messes up your day. And yes, sometimes you have no choice about that. But that should be the exception, not the rule. One of the reasons some people are more productive working at home is simply that they can manage that way to be free from so many distractions.

It’s never the essential, important communications that cause the problem. It’s people who get addicted to constant chatter, whether face-to-face or via the Internet, the cellphone network, and cyberspace. It’s the temptation to use the system just because it’s there. It’s stupid bosses who can’t bring themselves to find out the answer on their own, or—heaven forbid—wait until a more appropriate time. Let’s not kid ourselves. If we’re drowning in a morass of useless e-mails, wasted phone calls, and other interruptions, we’re the ones to blame. We can stop the problem any time by exercising discipline, using forethought, and trying to be considerate of others. It’s not the tools, it’s the folk using them—and the corporations that make millions of dollars by encouraging gullible people to text-message, call, IM, or e-mail all their contacts twenty times during the day.

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Toby Getsch said...

Bingo! This post nails my sentiments regarding most current communications. Bravo.

1:54 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Tony.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:33 PM  

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