Just switch the damn thing off!

In an exquisite example of middle-class angst, the Observer yesterday ran a piece by Open University professor John Naughton, who discusses the curse of the ‘always on’ connectivity of office computer and smartphone messaging. I don’t mean to be hard on Naughton, for I broadly agree with the thesis that the so-called “cycle of responsiveness” – a term coined by Harvard management expert Leslie Perlow – is in extremis a spiral to self-destruction.

Extremes aside, is email a distraction from real work? I suspect that it could be for the feeble of mind, of which there are no doubt many specimens working within modern office environments. But this is a simple management issue, and one that may be addressed with time and motion research followed by appropriate policy changes.

The problem, where there is one, could be solved in a stroke with clear and enforceable rules on email use, especially as regards in-office communications as opposed to off-site messaging. Such rules would soon lead to a change of culture, modified expectations, improvements in efficiency, and an overall reduction of stress levels.

But “real work”? The reason why always-on connectivity is not widely regarded as a problem is that in in many office environments there is relatively little real work to be done. Much of the economic activity in officeland amounts to mindlessly shifting information around, and email with a low signal-to-noise ratio is integral to this. Tapping out message after message may seem like displacement activity, but in economic terms it is accounted for as proper work, and that is all that matters in our managerialist culture.

Of course, such behaviour can stifle progress and innovation, but most of us are not particularly creative or innovative individuals. Those who are will adapt and control their working environments as they see fit, in order to maximise their output. The rest should be left to their distractions, mindless or otherwise. If it keeps them out of trouble, what’s the harm?