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Does Stealing Attention Violate Your Code of Conduct?

For those who oppose more rules, how about a voluntary change in culture towards less—rather than more—needless, if not mindless, communication.

April 2, 2013
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Related Topics: Business Etiquette, Corporate Culture, Organizational Culture, Workplace Culture
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Codes of conduct cover just about everything—what you can say and can't; what gifts are acceptable and aren't; relationships that are proper and those that cross the line. They span a wide swath of legal and operational territory. So let me suggest one more rule to prevent workplace behavior which drains productivity, creativity and efficiency.
Surely there's room for a standard to limit excessive emails, conference calls and webcasts. Two recent conversations reminded me how anywhere, 24/7 communication is stealing work time and concentration at the expense of real results.
One person told me how she had been on a three-hour webcast involving a new software application. I asked her what she had learned. She laughed. For most of what she described as a tedious, interminable call, she had her phone on mute. She walked around her house listening via a headset while she did odd chores or returned to her desk to check or write email. From time to time, she exchanged texts with fellow participants complaining about the event. From what she told me, the presenter delivered slide after slide to a muted audience whose members listened with barely enough attention to know when to un-mute and say yes or no if asked a direct question.
In the other instance, I spoke to a senior executive as he drove back to his office from an off-site appointment. We talked for 40 minutes. As we finished up, he told me he had arrived back at work midway in our conversation, and stayed in his car so we could speak without interruption. When he's not on the road, he's involved in more than his fair share of webcasts, conference calls, and email management. So when he can, he sits alone in his car escaping electronic distractions.
We've filled up our days with boring or irrelevant electronic stuff like this which steals our time to think, create and give others thoughtful assistance. In paying half attention to unending conference calls while we text or email or answer messages that didn't have to be sent, we create equally useless communications which then disrupt other recipients. This leads to a daisy chain of wasteful content. The result -- we all have to review electronic chatter to make sure we haven't missed an important message buried in a mass of consensual spam and get less done than if we could have if we had been focused on our key responsibilities. Working this way, and my guess is we all sometimes do, we underutilize the talents that placed us in our jobs.
Communication is vital. In almost every organization problems with how people connect with one another is cited as a major issue. It used to mean that communication was too sporadic and limited to an elite few. Now, it's at least as likely that communication is seen as too frequent or too broadly circulated.
In response, I suggest these rules:
1. Absent exceptional circumstances, conference calls, including webcasts, shouldn't last more than an hour, if they're needed at all. Only those who must participate should be invited.
2. Individuals should limit the number of emails they send to 15 a day, or roughly two an hour. Is there really a reason to send out 50 messages a day?
Rules like these would require judgment and discipline. But isn't that what workers are supposed to bring to work? For those who oppose more rules, how about a voluntary change in culture towards less—rather than more—needless, if not mindless, communication.

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