December 2004 - Work and technology
I like to think of myself as
a supporter of technologies that are aimed at
improving the way we work. It explains why I found
myself addressing a seminar in London last week
on technology and its influence on the workplace.
But the more I listened to other
speakers at the event, organised by CriticalEYE,
a membership organisation that specialises in
disseminating ideas in business, the more worried
I became about the implications of a widespread
use of portable communications such as mobile
phones, wireless headsets and e-mail messaging
systems. The more this technology progresses,
the fewer excuses we shall have for being beyond
the reach of our colleagues.
Philip Ross, chief executive
of the Cordless Group, a consultancy that specialises
in technology and the workplace, was extolling
the productivity benefits of wireless headsets
which, he says, are creating the "nomadic
office", enabling people to work anywhere.
We are fast approaching the day,
he said, when all our incoming messages, whether
they are e-mails, voicemail or faxes, will be
delivered to a single "in box", described
as a "unified messaging platform", that
can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
While some may enthuse about
this kind of unifying technology, there is less
to celebrate in the development of so-called "corporate
presence" systems. These will allow your
colleagues or your boss to detect whether you
are logged in to the corporate network, whether
at home, in the office or on the move.
"Whereas with e-mail, people
can ignore a message for a few hours, in this
world of corporate presence and instant messaging
you can never switch off. This has huge implications
for work-life balance, privacy and stress,"
said Mr Ross.
The "corporate presence"
philosophy is not so very different from telephone
paging systems that are commonly used to keep
track of employees who are out of the office.
The difference is that employees
who become accustomed to wearing wireless headsets
could find their privacy invaded at all hours
of the day and night with less scope for ignoring
the message. Talking recently with a group of
senior executives working in the UK for US-based
multinational companies, I found one of their
biggest complaints was about the way that their
US head offices were routinely calling them late
at night or in the early hours to attend conference
call meetings. These new technologies have yet
to breed a sense of management responsibility.
At least the wireless headset
allows you to do other things while attending
to such a call.
"I managed to go into my
home, get changed and leave again while I was
involved in one conference call the other day,"
said Neil Salton, senior marketing manager for
Europe, the Middle East and Asia, at Plantronics,
the communications headset business that sponsored
last week's seminar. "You can be doing these
things and no-one is any the wiser," he said.
Not long ago such technologies
were almost the exclusive preserve of television
presenters with discreetly-fitted earpieces allowing
them to take studio instructions from their producers.
Now their use is spreading across the broader
business community. Plantronics research points
to a productivity increase of 21 per cent among
employees using headsets in the information sector.
Many call-centre workers, however,
would view the wired headset as an electronic
chain that ties them to their desks. In the same
way, maybe we should view the wireless headset
as an invisible chain.
Most companies, I am sure, will
welcome the opportunity to reconnect with their
increasingly mobile executives. According to Mr
Ross, executives are becoming so remote from their
desks these days that just over 70 per cent of
all inbound telephone calls fail to reach the
people they are seeking. The only reason I find
that statistic worrying is that it means nearly
30 per cent of calls are getting through.
My biggest challenge is to find
enough time away from the telephone to get on
with things. Unfortunately, my cordless telephone
does not have a "silent" switch so I
have taken to muffling it when I want to ignore
my calls. Otherwise it is difficult to resist
a Pavlovian reaction to answer the phone.
It is probably a heresy in the
information business to question the growth of
communications technology, but businesses appeared
to function well enough before the advent of e-mails
and voicemail. Some companies such as Nestle and
Camelot, the UK National Lottery operator, have
experimented with e-mail-free Fridays and John
Caudwell, the founder of Phones 4U, the mobile
phone retailer, has banned e-mails among his staff.
Mr Caudwell, who has described
e-mails as the "cancer of modern business",
claimed an "instant, dramatic and positive
effect" after restricting their use earlier
this year. Before the ban, people had been reluctant
to pull themselves away from their computer screens.
After its introduction, he said, there was an
immediate improvement in the quality and efficiency
There is a tendency to welcome
every advance in technology as an improvement
but I worry that too many communications technologies
are adopted simply because they are new and exciting,
without sufficient consideration of their social
Why bother having people attending
your meeting, for example, if all they are doing
is working their way silently through their e-mails
on the portable device that is nestled in their
While almost every new gizmo
is greeted with interest, we tend to take for
granted older but durable technologies. Not for
the first time, Mr Ross was predicting the "slow
death of paper". I cannot see this happening,
for the simple reason that paper is so versatile.
It is as much a technology as the video screen.
Had paper been invented yesterday, we would be
hailing it as a cheap, efficient and disposable
medium instead of an obsolete one.
In the same way, there is a tendency
to ignore the writing speeds attainable with mastery
of the QWERTY keyboard. Why do schools not teach
typing skills? An intensive typing course could
instil the layout of the keyboard in days. Some
believe tablet computers will re-introduce an
emphasis on handwriting. But can we not make room
in our working lives for both handwriting and
The perennial issue for employers
surrounding skills such as typing and shorthand
is that their acquisition involves some training
investment. An electronic aid is cheap by comparison.
There can be little doubt that
technology is changing the way we work. But there
may be a case for questioning whether such change
is always for the better.
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