Office technology: Productivity boost or time sink?

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

That mini-tower by your desk, that tablet by your bedside, the netbook you use on the commuter train, the 3G smartphone that's always within reach -- they're powerful, essential tools of the office, right? They do for white-collar productivity what the assembly line did for factory productivity -- isn't that obvious?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

The dirty little secret of office technology is that no one can agree on how exactly to measure white-collar productivity. That means, in turn, that no one can prove definitively that PCs and other technologies contribute anything to productivity.

What the experts have figured out is how to track what office workers actually spend their time doing. The results indicate that -- contrary to any assumptions about their usefulness -- personal computers, smartphones, notebooks, netbooks and associated gadgets can be such massively beguiling, addictive time sinks that they materially damage the economy -- draining it by one-sixteenth, according to one calculation.

There was a time when "interruption" meant an unexpected phone call or visitor. Mail was delivered only once daily. Now office workers are continually barraged with e-mail, instant messages, texts, BlackBerry traffic, blog updates, news feeds, Tweets, Web sites with enticing links and calendar reminders -- and the phone still rings, people still drop by and paper mail is still delivered.

Simply dealing with the deluge gives people the illusion of productivity. But statistics indicate that might be all it is -- an illusion.

No one is advocating flipping the switch back to precomputer days. What they are saying is that the computer's potential for undermining productivity should be understood -- and countered.

Simply dealing with the deluge gives us the illusion of productivity. But statistics indicate that might be all it is -- an illusion.

There are easy ways to do that, efficiency experts say -- sometimes by turning off seemingly innocent features that serve mostly to distract us, sometimes by using overlooked features that eliminate time-wasting tasks, and sometimes by simply steeling our resolve against the siren song of endless digital distraction.

From factory floor to office door

Computers were introduced wholesale into offices in the 1980s to boost white-collar productivity through what was then called office automation. The effort was inspired by previously successful projects to boost blue-collar productivity through factory automation. Experts tried to gauge the impact of the computers, treating the office as if it were a factory of paper-pushers.

It didn't work, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

"The problem is not on the input side, since there are a lot of ways of measuring the cost of white-collar activities," explains Clinton Longenecker, business professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio. "The problem is measuring the deliverables, since there are no effective metrics of output. They are still debating how to measure white-collar productivity."

In other words, if an office produces invoices and periodic financial reports for an enterprise, how much are those worth? After all, they have no market value. You can calculate how much it cost to produce them, but that's no help if you don't know their value. Do they contribute to the success of the enterprise? If so, exactly how much do they contribute?

"We are borrowing management science from the industrial age and using it in the knowledge economy," says Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex Inc., a New York research firm. "Most of the time, it is the same as putting a square peg in a round hole."

It took 150 years for the industrial age to produce an adequate management science, he notes, and the knowledge economy is only a couple of decades old. Spira doesn't think it will take 150 years for a management science for knowledge work to arise, but he admits that he has no clue as to what it might look like.

Meanwhile, having been waylaid in their quest to value output, modern efficiency experts instead spend their time examining what office workers spend their time actually doing -- and assume that the output, whatever it is, amounts to productivity. But what they find is not always pretty.

The multitasking illusion

In particular, efficiency experts are alarmed by the effects of computer-enabled multitasking on office work and office workers. "I used to say that multitasking made a task take 15% longer. Now I say 50%," says Bary Sherman, head of PEP Productivity Solutions Inc., a Fallbrook, Calif.-based management consultancy that specializes in helping organizations become more efficient.

"Multitasking, as a term applied to people, did not exist before Microsoft Windows," points out Dave Crenshaw, a Saratoga Springs, Utah-based executive coach. But now, he says, "we use the term thinking we can multitask like computers."

The problem is that human multitasking involves interrupting one task with another. "We found in our research that something very interesting happens when I interrupt you," says Basex's Spira. "First there is the interruption itself, and then there is what we call the recovery time, which is the time it takes you to get back to where you were."

"We found that the recovery time is 10 to 20 times the length of the interruption," Spira continues. "The phone call that interrupted you may have lasted 30 seconds, but getting back to where you were may take five minutes."

By Spira's calculations, about 28% of an office worker's time is lost to interruptions and recovery time. Taking into account the size of the U.S. knowledge worker workforce (more than 65 million) and the average knowledge worker's salary (more than $21 per hour) and other data that's proprietary, he figures interruptions cost the U.S. about $900 billion per year, out of a gross domestic product of approximately $14.5 trillion.

In other words, interruptions stunt the economy by about one-sixteenth.

How workers spend their time

Experts may not agree on what constitutes white-collar productivity, but they do agree that the majority of office workers' time is spent on distractions.

You did what all week?

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