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'Reply to All' can be a setback to all technology's gains

published March 27, 2006

Michael Kinsman
( 2 votes, average: 3.6 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Using "Reply to All" when a message should just be sent to one other person may not seem like a crime, but think about when the message is sent to a dozen other people, or 40. Each is interrupted from what he or she should be doing to tend to an unnecessary message.

It's a little thing with a very big impact.


Think about a workday without cell phones, voice mails, e-mails, text messages and the other communication technologies of the day. The technology is great, but does it make you a net gainer or a net loser?

Increasingly, American workers seem to think they are the losers.

Workers in a recent survey said they were able to complete about two-thirds of their daily work assignments last year. That compares to workers in 1994 who said they were able to complete three-quarters of their work.

The survey of 1,300 workers, done by the Day-Timers organizational products company of Lehigh Valley, Pa., found that 51 percent of workers in 2005 thought they were extremely productive, compared to 83 percent in 1994.

Many of today's workers blame fast-evolving workplace technologies for creating additional pressures and stress in their jobs, which saps productivity.
Elizabeth Banham, a San Diego attorney, was out of the office one day last week and returned to 300 fresh e-mails. She dug in and read each one, eating up valuable time.

"It's like gold mining," Banham says. "It's worth it because there's always a chance that there will be a gem in there, and I can't afford to miss that."

Many workers face the same dilemma: forge ahead with scheduled work and risk missing an important message or postpone work and open all the e-mails?

"You want technology to support your life, not run it," says Odette Pollar, who runs Smart Ways To Work, a management consulting and training company in Oakland, Calif. "The problem is not that the cell phone rings, but the problem is that we answer it when we shouldn't."

She says workers haven't been good at building boundaries between technology and their jobs. And that problem can extend into their personal lives.

"There's a sense that because we have the technology to communicate so fast that we should be responding immediately," Pollar says. "But often what we see are false deadlines and unnecessary interruptions. It wasn't like that 10 years ago."

But don't blame American workers. Many were already in the work force before e-mail, voice mail and instant messaging existed, and few people know how to manage it effectively, she says.

"Nobody gets taught how to handle e-mail, so how can we blame them for looking at the same e-mail three or four times? There is an expectation that you have to respond to an e-mail as soon as it comes in or you have done something wrong," says Pollar, author of the book "Surviving Information Overflow." "That's not right."

Miriam Rothman, a management professor at the University of San Diego, sees an almost emotional connection between today's rapid-fire communications and the people receiving them.

"It's almost an attraction we can't resist," she says. "We want attention and when we receive messages, 'It's about us.' That really is alluring to some people."

She thinks that not only does technology overload sap workplace productivity, but it also undermines the benefits of human connections.

"You hear stories about people in one cubicle sending e-mails to the person in the next cubicle when they could more effectively communicate their message personally," she says. "I think people want that human touch. It gives them more of a sense that they working with others."

Banham, however, says e-mail can further co-workers' productivity by allowing them to respond when they have time rather than being interrupted by phone calls or drop-in visits.

Rothman agrees that technology often makes things easier, especially if individuals establish parameters.

"You have to handle it wisely, respond to messages when it is convenient for you, not just because someone else sent you a message and expects a response right away."

She also thinks that human resources managers may eventually find links between technology burdens and increased stress or medical claims. Until that day, individuals will have to watch out for themselves.

"What we really don't know about is how younger workers feel about this," she says. "They are so connected to technology and have been using it all their lives that they don't know how it affects them. They've never known a world without it."

© Copley News Service

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