Workforce.com

Surviving Internet Speed

April 14, 2001
It's 11:00 on a Monday morning and Sarah Hawley is swamped. The SanFrancisco-based account supervisor for Connect Public Relations scrolls down aseemingly never-ending list of e-mail messages. Her inbox is stuffed with morethan 100 missives. She is clearly paying the price for not checking in over theweekend. As she quickly scans the subject lines, she glances at her blinkingvoice-mail light. She has a conference call to attend and a project deadlinethat looms only a few hours away.

    "Today, things are moving so quickly," she says. "It's gettingharder and harder to keep up with everything. Every time you turn around,there's new technology to learn and new pressures to cope with. The same devicesand programs that are supposed to make things easier are making things moredifficult and complex."

    Welcome to Internet speed. If one thing increasingly defines the workplaceand workers' lives, it's that fast is no longer fast enough. The crush of newtechnology descending on the workplace -- designed to ratchet up productivity andimprove interaction -- is leaving many feeling alienated, disoriented, and burnedout. "People are bombarded with data and deadlines," says J. LeeWhittington, human resources management program director at the University ofDallas Graduate School of Management. "And many individuals aren't sure howto cope."

    Neither are organizations. As competition escalates and pressure builds, manyfirms believe they must respond with increasing speed to stay afloat."Customers, employees, and managers are continuing to develop expectationsfor doing business with organizations through the Internet. Unfortunately, thetechnology often moves faster than the ability of people and corporate culturesto adapt," says David A. Link, vice president of the eWorkplace practice atCedar, a Baltimore-based consulting firm formerly known as The Hunter Group.

    While it is tempting to blame the malaise on technology, the issue is as muchabout work habits, time management, corporate culture, and human resourcespractices. "Unless people take control of the technology and learn tomanage it, they're likely to find themselves managed by it," says JacquesLeger, managing consultant for Watson Wyatt Worldwide, San Francisco. "Atmany companies, there are simply too few rules. HR and senior management musttake a leadership position."

Plugged in all the time
    The digital workplace wasn't supposed to be like this. In the 1980s, punditsenvisioned a society replete with labor-saving technology and an increasinglyshort workweek. Yet the road to leisure has encountered more than a fewpotholes. In Jeremy Rifkin's bestseller, The End of Work (G.P. Putnam'sSons,1995), readers glimpse a future where there isn't enough work to go aroundand large numbers of people are unemployed or underemployed-all as a result oftechnology. It's not uncommon for many professionals to find themselvesconstantly tethered to work. They make calls on their cell phones as theycommute. They incessantly check their pagers and voice mail at businessmeetings, in their kitchens, at the grocery store. They take work home and pluginto the Intranet in the evening.

    "Even when I am on vacation with my family, it's easier for me to takean hour out of my day to check my e-mail and respond to it than to come back to1,000-plus e-mail messages," says David P. Trainor, associate vicepresident of human resources at Eastern Connecticut State University."There's no question that there's more information, better information, andbetter-organized information than 10 years ago. But technology andcommunications have created an instant-answer expectation. There is a growingresentment about its impact and effect on people."

    One of the biggest technological trouble zones is the question of how e-mailand other electronic communication is used. "E-mail is the mouse thatbecomes a tiger. It looks innocuous, but it can devour people," Leger says.Today, it's not unusual for professionals like Sarah Hawley to receive anywherefrom 50 to 150 e-mail messages a day. Separating the important news andinformation from the static is a growing issue. At many companies, workers arebombarded with e-mail messages from executives and other employees. The contentof the messages ranges from crucial news and information to chitchat and jokes.Ironically, the time that one person saves by clicking "Send to All"rather than sorting through the recipient list steals valuable seconds andminutes away from the receiver.

    E-mail etiquette has become another daunting problem, Leger says. Peoplefrequently send electronic messages to the adjoining cubicle, or mark them allurgent and grow impatient if there isn't a speedy reply. Others hide behinde-mail and voice mail, returning calls and messages days late or at odd hours,or use e-mail as a way to document everything to cover themselves. Still otherswind up inflaming fellow workers by displaying aggression and hostility thatwould never be tolerated in the physical world. As a result, he says, "People whotry to take control of their situation and manage the technology sometimes windup becoming victims of those who do not."

    Instant-messaging, two-way pagers and always-on mobile phones aren't makingthings easier. Even though the devices can provide powerful solutions-and allownear-instant access to valuable data, information, and knowledge-many companieshave created an expectation that employees should be available at all hours ofthe day or night. What's more, project deadlines seem only to accelerate whilecompletion cycles are increasingly compressed. "There are cultures wherethe boss sends an e-mail message at 11:00 on Saturday night, and you're gradedby how quickly you respond," Whittington says. "If you answer by 7:00on Sunday morning, you receive high marks."

    Even companies that have tried to implement "guilt-free vacations"have found themselves running into buzz saws. Though some managers encourageemployees to tune out and disconnect, the realities of today's workplace make ita virtual impossibility. It's unrealistic to ignore a crucial project or a spateof e-mail messages asking for additional information. "A culture that isdriven cannot simply disconnect-no matter what senior management says,"Whittington notes.

    With the Age of Information has come the related issue of how to introducenew technology and train employees to use it effectively. It's no longer enoughfor workers to know how to use a word-processing program and a Web browser. Atmany firms, employees are expected to use an array of digital tools-including acore ERP or HRMS, data mining and business intelligence, PowerPoint, Excel, and a PDA. Withfrequent upgrades and changing needs, the office sometimes can seem as puzzling as athree-dimensional chess game.

Exorcising the speed demons
    Some companies are attempting to gain control of technology. At Connect PR,Kitty Cole, director of training and development, makes it a point to addressthe daily pressures of the digital age. The company, which has 42 employees atoffices in San Francisco, Seattle, and Provo, Utah, offers five days of trainingto new hires, as well as regular computer, technology, time-management, andwork-life programs to help people better manage their lives. The agency relieson a business-development coach to provide one-on-one counseling. The companysoon will offer monthly technology briefings by phone, so that employees canstay current on client needs.

    "We are trying very hard to mold a workforce that's happy, productive,and focused," Cole says. "The cultural issues are key tosucceeding in an environment that's so fast-paced and demanding." Addscompany president Neil Myers: "It's not about working fast, it's aboutworking fast enough, and working smart." He notes that it's also importantto set boundaries, so that employees don't wind up sitting in marketing meetingsat 1 a.m. on a Saturday. "There are limits, and it's up to management toset them."

    At Eastern Connecticut State University, David Trainor tries to focus on thepositives of electronic communication. "There are some natural feelings ofresentment about technology, but they're not insurmountable. It is important tocelebrate the successes and victories that take place," he says.

    No amount of training can eliminate all the pressures that come with Internetspeed. Human resources can, however, define rules and guidelines forcommunication and interaction, Leger says. People must have realisticexpectations. They have to learn that it is completely okay not to respond to ane-mail message within five minutes, and that it is occasionally all right toturn the e-mail off when they're busy on an important project. Organizationsalso have to establish methods and processes that help employees conduct theirpersonal lives and go on vacation without constantly being on call.

    Yet for many professionals, including Sarah Hawley, what seemedelectronically extreme only a few years ago has become standard practice. Hercell phone is always on, she's never far from her e-mail, and when she goes onvacation, she says, she knows there will be days when she'll check voice mailand e-mail. The key is managing her time, she says. That can mean leaving amessage referring callers to a colleague, putting an auto responder on here-mail, or closing her e-mail program when she's on a tight deadline.

    "The reality is, technology is neither good nor bad," she says."A cell phone, pager, or computer program can stress you out or make yourlife and work easier. It's up to each company and individual to use thetechnology effectively. No matter how hard you try, it's difficult to completelyescape."

Workforce, April 2001, pp.38-43 Subscribe Now!