Are you in control of your working day?

I spend a lot of my time talking to people in their office, either in a meeting room or at their desk. It’s the part of my job I love the most. It is not just about the answers I receive to my questions that interest me but also how they go about managing the time they are spending with me. Increasingly people bring both a smartphone and a tablet with them to the meeting and spend much of the 40 minutes that I tend to use as a meeting duration (tip – it’s never positioned as an interview!) responding to messages from their mobile devices. Even if they don’t send a message back I can see the news change their demeanour and I always have to summarise where we were in our conversation. We are losing control of our working day because we want to appear social and responsive to our colleagues.

For some years now Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine, has been studying the impact of interruptions on the way we work and also the way in which multi-tasking is now a common mode of working. Her research indicates that we are interrupted every 11 minutes and that it takes us 25 minutes to return to the original task. Even on a good day this may mean we do not finish the task and take work home to finish it in an environment where we have more control over interruptions. On a bad day we might not even get to start the task. When I take an early train into London I find it fascinating to see people take a phonecall and tell the caller that they are on a train so could they call when they get to the office, but then continue to have a conversation for perhaps 20 minutes. This is at 8am in the morning.

The iPass reports on mobile adoption are essential reading if you are in the process of supporting mobile access to corporate resources. In the Q4 2012 iPass report there is a list of 11 different types of technology interruptions, ranging from email to Google+. Mobile workers typically spend between 15 minutes and an hour a day coping with these interruptions. What is concerning is that the percentage of employees spending more than an hour a day coping with interruptions is increasing every year.

Much is made of the benefits of social media in the workplace, and the benefits are well documented. But rarely is there any discussion of the downsides of being ‘always on’. Of course you can book private time on your calendar but does it stop people trying to contact you? “I know you don’t want to be disturbed but this won’t take a minute” is the usual introduction. The brief conversation may indeed last only a minute but based on the research undertaken by Gloria Mark it may be 25 minutes before you get back to writing the proposal for a very important new business opportunity.

There has been a substantial amount of research into the ways that people work with computers, often rather hidden away under the academic topic of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW).  There are well over 1 million citations to CSCW on Google.Take a look at the programme for the 2012 ACM Conference on CSCW to get a sense of the value of this research in the development of digital workplaces.  If digital workplaces are going to have a positive impact on work output then we need to be taking careful stock of this research to ensure that a balance is kept between socialibility and a focus on the task in hand.

Martin White