What's killing office productivity?

Is electronic messaging killing productivity — or is the real enemy the guy in the next cubicle?

Anybody who remembers putting a floppy disk in a courier bag, listening for the screech of a direct dial-up modem or, God forbid, writing a letter knows deep in their heart that e-mail — indeed, electronic messaging of all kinds — improves productivity. It just doesn’t always feel that way when your unresolved inbox entries number in the hundreds. These deluges, combined with the sheer distraction of the incoming-message ping, have provoked many a company to control e-mail use, lest it do more harm than good.

Armed with a growing body of research indicating that repeatedly switching tasks at the workstation lowers productivity and increases the incidence of errors, companies including Intel and Toronto’s Alocet Inc. enforce a daily “quiet time” when employees turn off their e-mail applications. Deloitte & Touche and U.S. Cellular likewise discourage frequent checking of e-mail, favouring face-to-face interaction.

But Jason Fried, CEO of Chicago-based software company 37signals, argues that e-mail is not the problem: it’s the ringing phone and the boss showing up at the cubicle that interrupt the real work going on. The typical workplace is “optimized for interruptions,” Fried says in a video rant posted on last February. “If someone’s calling my name, or tapping on my shoulder, or knocking on my door, I can’t ignore those things.” As a result, he says, “People go to work today, and then they end up doing most of their work after work, or on the weekends.”

By contrast, 37signals is structured around removing interruptions, he goes on to explain. Fried instructs his staff, even those sitting next to each other, to communicate almost exclusively by an instant messaging system of 37signals’s own invention. His office, he says, is very quiet. “Even though we might be sitting right across from each other, we don’t talk to each other hardly at all during the day.”

That’s not to say there’s no collaboration; it’s just shifted to passive e-mail and messaging technologies. If you need to stay in the zone to get a piece of work finished, you simply close your e-mail or chat window until you’ve finished what you’re working on, and respond to each message in order of priority.

Judging by the number of comments, the video has got a lot of people thinking about how offices work — indeed, how they go about not only communicating but managing. According to Fried, who along with his partner, David Heinemeier Hansson, recently published a book, Rework, on this and other themes, “Managers are the biggest problem, because their whole world is built around interruption.”

If you agree with Fried, hold on, because it’s about to get worse.

Canadian companies alone are expected to spend $36 billion over the next three years on unified communications systems that harmonize voice telephony, messaging, conferencing and in-person “presence,” says Laurie Shaw of Edmonton-based Acrodex Inc. While Acrodex specializes in the technical capability, it also helps companies devise policies as to who should be using which communications medium under what circumstances.

“It’s all about productive interruptions and collaborative responses,” says Shaw, noting that it often takes a worker longer to draft an e-mail than to poke her head up over the divider to ask a question. One short conversation can often resolve an issue that would get drawn out over an entire day by trading e-mails.

The most productive communications mix also depends on the kind of work and the work environment. Imposing quiet time at head office could be a huge time-waster for employees on the road who have shifting windows of accessibility.

“The problem with e-mail is you don’t know if somebody is there, you don’t know if they’ve received it, and you don’t know if they understand,” says Mark Gelsomini, global corporate manager of IT for Dundee Precious Metals, which has mines and smelters around the world. With the help of Acrodex, Dundee recently implemented a single app that integrates voice, messaging and video and makes employees accessible anywhere, at all hours. “No one’s complaining that I can’t do my work,” Gelsomini says.

In the absence of corporate policies and integrated tools, the one thing parties on both sides of the debate can agree on is the need for office workers to take control of their messaging. That means turning off your e-mail client and silencing the smartphone when you don’t want to be disturbed. As for the backlog of messages in your inbox, or the boss dropping by unannounced, you’re on your own.