I am getting really annoyed by the bossy world of tech. Example: You are cruising on your iPad, surfing the web for another color of those shoes you saw in the store, or reading an article about the drought in California, or a science blog on the relative sizes of the planets, and up pops a screen:
“Do you want to continue in your browser or sign in to our Facebook page” another asks more politely.
“Use our app! It’s better!” it screams.
Or: “Sign in through your Facebook page or Twitter account!” a third one nags.
Well, of course they want me to sign in, because it is better for data mining and product placement for their ads, but it comes as another distraction in the world of the internet. It interrupts me when I am on a roll. It distracts me from something else I need to be doing. It slows me down, so that something that was just a quick check becomes tediously slow, while I hunt for passwords, or download the app, or close the pop-up.
The intrusiveness of these commands is intentional, of course. Neither sustained thought nor comparison shopping is desirable in the world of marketing that dominates the commercialization of the internet. To capture my loyalties through an app or to add to Facebook’s advertising potential is the goal, not customer satisfaction, relationship building, or open access to research, for example. It is interesting how the evolution of the internet has progressed (or regressed!). Initially it facilitated low cost communications compared to old fashioned long distance phone rates and printed newsletters and books. It enhanced access to research tools and reference libraries that were unavailable to many people. Today, however, these early benefits have been commercialized, and despite many advantages of that evolution, increasingly we are ourselves commodities to be sold to the highest bidders.
So how does this connect to management?
First, I am not saying that we need to return to a non-digital age! That would be ridiculous, not to mention impossible, and that view overlooks the many benefits of technology. But I think it is important to keep in mind what research is beginning to tell us: In a world of constant noise and distraction, we need to find ways to provide mental and physical quiet spaces for ourselves and our colleagues. (And there are apps for that!) Not everyone needs to be part of a team for every aspect of work, even if it is a team project. Silence enhances creativity. Constant busyness is NOT necessarily a sign of productivity, and in fact may undermine it. So how do we do this?
Give each other encouragement not to respond to email nights and weekends. It is ok to read it if you must, but don’t respond. “But what about emergencies?” you cry! I have never heard of a workplace emergency that was communicated via email (warnings, yes, but not the emergency itself). Typically a real emergency is communicated by phone call, or text, or by a police officer at your door. Not by email.
Second, quiet space should be available, even if it is via noise cancelling headphones. Research shows that constant noise increases stress, even music (or especially music, since few of us have the same tastes). This is why, for example, well run MRI units provide earplugs to patients. In addition, as Susan Cain writes in Quiet, one out of every two or three of us is an introvert, for whom the constant stimulation of chatter and noise undermines their normally high levels of creativity and productivity.
Third, constant internet access may be critical for some jobs, but there are others for which it is a distraction. Unless your work is cloud based, it may be possible to disconnect on a regular schedule of your choosing. The Freedom app, developed by Fred Stutzman, “locks you away” from the internet for a specific period, up to eight hours a day (macfreedom.com). And since the goal is removing temptation, there is also Anti-Social (anti-social.cc) to turn off social media while you try to write or think or compose. I am not personally recommending these two programs, since I’ve never tried them, but those of you who diet best by not bringing ice cream into the house might like them, since the same principle is at work. They have been reviewed by the NY Times, NPR, and other reputable sources.
The commodification of our lives and identities does raise concerns about privacy, but it also illustrates two principles important to managers: First, the increase in workplace distractions reduces worker productivity, and increases stress, as I have noted above. Secondly, the commercialization of the internet also illustrates another, and perhaps more significant, principle: the law of unintended consequences, which I will discuss in my next post.