Office technology: Productivity boost or time sink?

Gadget-enabled multitasking is so addictive, it might actually be damaging the economy.

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One big case in point? E-mail, which most employees now regard as essential to their business lives. "E-mail has gone from promise to plague," Sherman says. "It is a lousy collaborative tool, since conversing by e-mail takes 10 times longer than by phone."

To regain control, he suggests that IT should show office workers how to turn off new-mail notifications and set their preferences to check for mail at set intervals only. (See Taming the e-mail beast for other productivity tips).

Biggest time-wasters

Aside from e-mail, the worst distractions are IM, voice mail, smartphones and, of course, the World Wide Web itself.

"The most abused form of communications is instant messaging," Sherman says. "No one gives people rules for using it. They'll send messages asking if you got their e-mail." As an antidote, Sherman suggests that users master the "presence" notification settings of their IM system so that their correspondents can see whether they are willing to receive instant messages.

As for voice mail, users need to manage expectations by being specific about response times, Crenshaw notes. "If your recording says you will get back 'as soon as possible,' that may mean a day to you, but five minutes to someone else, and they will start interrupting you more and more. You should choose a time interval and stick to it."

Meanwhile, efficiency experts agree that the use of BlackBerries and other PDAs in meetings is bad form -- one even suggests that participants be required to park them in hanging shoe holders at the door.

Hallowell tells the story of a lawyer who was able to negotiate a surprisingly good deal for his client during a meeting with opposing lawyers. Later, when he was asked how he managed it, he said, "I was the only one at the meeting not working on a BlackBerry."

Finally, of course, there is the Web and its endless chain of time-sucking links. To keep themselves on track at work, Crenshaw encourages workers to use personal whitelists and blacklists of Web sites, just as corporate security systems do. If users are reminded that they're linking to an off-topic site during business hours, they can perhaps short-circuit another lapse into an open-ended series of task switches. (Crenshaw himself uses the LeechBlock add-on for Firefox to control his surfing impulses.)

The upside of the PC revolution

Of course, there is a corresponding upside to this productivity downside. The ultimate usefulness of personal computers to the business world is undeniable -- especially when compared to previous paper-based methods.

"At one point, in order to achieve a workgroup consensus, you had to pass around a draft document for everyone to mark up until everyone agreed," points out Michael Liebhold, senior researcher at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Palo Alto, Calif. "These days, you can do that very quickly with digital documents."

White-collar employees with a digital library at their fingertips find it's easier to do research and to do more of it themselves, he adds. Moreover, "the workforce is more agile due to the ability to stay in contact pervasively, regardless of location," he notes.

At the corporate level, the cost of financial management as a percentage of revenue has been dropping for more than 15 years, thanks to computerization, says Honorio Padron, a consultant in the Atlanta office of The Hackett Group Inc., a strategic consulting firm.

"With technology, [companies] are able to improve tremendously the way they forecast; they are able to cut inventory levels, maximize their cash flows and meet customer demands in a more satisfactory way," Padron says. And those improvements are all enabled by employees with computers.

In this recession Padron notes, many enterprises have cut back on various departments while demanding the same output. They often ask IT to make up the difference by applying automation. And that puts more pressure than ever on IT to give rank-and-file employees the tools and training they need to ensure that they use their computers productively, and don't simply sit in front of them, entranced.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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