Friday, February 24, 2006

Workers working harder, getting less done

Here's a story that says we're working harder but getting less done. That seems to fit with the anecdotal evidence I see around me every day. People talk about how busy they are and how they don't have time to get everything done. That seems to be at odds with all these great time-saving technologies we're all so busy adopting. But the new hardware and software doesn't seem to help. In fact, if studies like this are to be believed, they might be a big part of the problem.

Here's an excerpt from the Wired News article, just to give you the flavour:
Unlike a decade ago, U.S. workers are bombarded with e-mail, computer messages, cell phone calls, voicemails and the like, research showed.

The average time spent on a computer at work was almost 16 hours a week last year, compared with 9.5 hours a decade ago, according to the Day-Timer research released this week.

Workers typically get 46 e-mails a day, nearly half of which are unsolicited, it said.

Sixty percent of workers say they always or frequently feel rushed, but those who feel extremely or very productive dropped to 51 percent from 83 percent in 1994, the research showed.

Put another way, in 1994, 82 percent said they accomplished at least half their daily planned work but that number fell to 50 percent last year. A decade ago, 40 percent of workers called themselves very or extremely successful, but that number fell to just 28 percent.

What should we take from this information? Well, we're moving in the wrong direction, despite the technological advances we've made. We haven't learned how to use technology to our advantage, at least in a consistent way. We have learned how to take advantage of technology in a larger sense. Our corporations are more profitable than they've ever been and real advances have been made in all sorts of areas.

But we have not been as quick with figuring out how technology helps our society in a "social" sense. How are communities made stronger by high technology? How does the ability to bring people together in a virtual world translate into a better "real" world? We don't have those answers. We're not even asking the questions yet. We're starstruck by the potential wins and not paying enough attention to the issues we're facing right now.

In a company, this shows up in issues like switching from print newsletters to intranets. Features that used to be standard in a print publication, like employee profiles, retirement notices, death notices, upcoming social events, etc., are often discarded. They're not seen as driving business anymore and they get dropped from the "instant-on" Intranets. (This isn't to condemn Intranets -- just to point out that some of the "social" benefits of the older technology get overlooked when we switch to the newer models.)

We expect employees to work harder. We monitor their performance more closely. And we're more likely to question their work habits if they don't measure up to business objectives. In theory, this should make us more efficient, but in practice, as studies like this are starting to indicate, we are becoming less efficient. Or at least, we think we are less efficient and that could be the same thing.

We need some new measures for how we decide whether we're working well and whether the companies we work for are measuring up. Bottom line performance is only one measurement. When it's the only one used, it's hard on employees. But if we were to broaden the measurement base to include items like job satisfaction, community involvement, creativity -- there could be a lot on this list -- we would be able to judge the merits of our business world in a more socially responsible manner.

A change is coming, I'm sure of it. And while the rapid adoption of new technologies is part of the problem, it's also the key to a solution. We've just got to keep asking the right questions.

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