With communications technology now filling every conceivable area of our daily lives, Rob House reckons that – for the sanity of all – responsible management of communications should be firmly placed on the agenda
Communications are everywhere. Internet, e-mail, mobile and fixed phones, text and video messaging, voicemail...we have made the technology all-pervasive. But is it invasive? We've all been irritated by information overload, stressed by multiple messages, and exasperated by the behaviour of other users.
Working in the communications business, we seem to be the worst culprits of all. How many of us check e-mail in an almost addictive way? How many of us can't – just can't – switch off the mobile? How many meetings have dragged on and on because of interruptions to make or take calls? How many train journeys are made unnecessarily noisy by the caricature person on the mobile phone? And was it you?
How complicated is it for someone to turn off, or even just turn down, their ring tone? Or to speak softly?We are now all technology-competent. We use whatever we're sold, or whatever we're told to use. And, largely, we'd be lost without it. But it is also essential to know what is socially acceptable when using technology – that is, if you are to avoid the dangers of being treated like an outcast. Human relationships are still vital to success – and sometimes we tend to forget this. We promote the technology and devices upon which people's personal and professional lives are becoming increasingly dependant, but are we guilty of ignoring the protocols of technology etiquette?
We are a mobile society: business professionals and technicians tote wireless phones; mobiles have become fashion statements for teenagers; phones ring in meetings and loud conversations are conducted on public transport. The use of data is different, being less intrusive. But the ease with which e-mails can be sent to PCs and PDAs contributes to information overload.
We now receive 64 times more information than we did 25 years ago and growth continues: in fact, the curve is exponential. So, Siemens Communications in the UK set out to find out how effectively this communications revolution was being managed. The company commissioned a study into the etiquette of business communications in the digital age, which was undertaken by Surrey Social and Market Research (SSMR) at the University of Surrey, Guildford, England, with additional analysis by the University's Digital World Research Centre.
Seeking to determine attitudes and opinions with regard to acceptable communications practices, the research looked into the way in which today's business communications are affecting workers' attitudes, performance and interaction – and concluded that too much technology can make you SAD.
The new SAD factor
A few years ago, researchers in Scandinavia identified a condition known as Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) caused by prolonged periods working without much available natural light.
The Siemens study reveals a new form of SAD that can affect workers all year round – especially those of us exposed to communications technology. Mismanagement of communications tools can be a root cause of workplace Stress, Anger and Distraction (SAD). The research findings clearly demonstrate that an over-reliance on communications is becoming a friction point in offices, causing stress which is affecting personal relationships both at work and at home.
Technology has given us a myriad of ways of communicating. We have desktop and mobile phones as well as PDAs and notebook PCs that can be used as softphones. We use the Internet, intranets and extranets, as well as public and private networks, both wireline and wireless. It is hard to imagine a communications landscape more fragmented than the one we currently endure. With all the new technology, Siemens has estimated that trying to get in touch with a colleague can waste an average of 30 minutes each day for each knowledge worker, which equates to a UK national wage bill of some £22bn per annum.
The research identified an underlying demand for the better management of availability and for integrated communications systems. And, ironically, it highlighted the fact that many office workers resent the interruptions that communications caused to meetings and workflow, but at the same time demanded almost instant contact when trying to reach colleagues.
So, how do we cope without drowning in the digital mire? Well, a bit of old-fashioned courtesy is a good start, coupled with implementing a system that controls your communications, rather than letting them control you.
Working with the University teams, Siemens has devised Eight Simple Rules of business etiquette to act as employer and employee guidelines to working behaviour.
1. Have your mobile off or on silent in meetings: The research showed that only 11 per cent of business users think it acceptable to have a mobile on during a meeting
2. Change your mobile voicemail to request text for urgent messages:Texting is generally thought to be too informal for business use and implies that you cannot be bothered to speak to someone. However, its use by request or prior arrangement for messaging has some potential.
3. Turn your device screens off when holding meetings in your office:74 per cent of respondents felt it unacceptable to read e-mail during an office meeting
4. If you are expecting an urgent call apologise and warn others in advance:The research was clear that interrupting a meeting to take a call should only be undertaken with prior warning and for urgent matters.
5. The person you are talking to deserves your full attention:11 per cent of respondents felt that an emergency was the only acceptable use of a mobile phone during a face-to-face meeting or discussion.
6. Hold private calls in private places:Clearly some calls – business and personal – are inappropriate for public places.
7. Break out of e-mail jail – talk to your colleagues:In many cases e-mail is becoming the easy option and is being overused – overuse actually reduces its effectiveness.
8. Technology is not power – it doesn't signify your importance:Mobile phones and other personal devices do not signify a person's importance.
Interestingly, only slightly more than 50 per cent of respondents felt that it was inappropriate to use any form of IT equipment in a meeting or when talking to a colleague. Subject matter, location and relationships were all factors in determining how someone behaves in a meeting – with relationships being perhaps the most critical. Meetings now cover a wide range of discussions and many are informal and relaxed – on these occasions, interruptions are more acceptable if they are sufficiently important.
The University's research supports Siemens' own findings concerning availability management, a key feature in OpenScape – the company's presence-based application that utilises Microsoft's Live Communication Server infrastructure. Availability management applications like this allow users to flag to their colleagues their degree of availability and their preferred method of contact – integrating voice, e-mail, mobile, voicemail and text messaging systems to maximise contactability while minimising intrusion. In short, availability management applications are able to deliver the benefits of managing communications – such as eliminating the risk of missing an authorised, important, interruption, which traditional behavioural approaches are unable to filter – as suggested by the research, but without the manual intervention overheads.
Surely it is time that technology went back to the future and gave us the equivalent of everybody being in the same location at the same time and being able to communicate in real time? We need to enable better, less stressful ways of communicating and collaborating, starting with voice-data convergence and instant messaging (IM). IM is an application that uses icons to show the 'presence' – on-line or off-line – of nominated colleagues ('buddies' in Internet parlance). Note also that IM is actually a misnomer since it's used to communicate in real-time; e-mail is a messaging medium.
IP phones are, in effect, data devices that are visible to the network. What availability applications achieve is to develop and integrate IM applications that use icons to indicate presence and availability. This means that you do not waste time calling parties who are busy and you spend more time communicating and less time messaging.
IM programs also allow users to display additional availability information alongside the presence icon. Availability denotes a persons willingness to communicate and it is based on preferences and policies – i.e. it is managed at both the individual and corporate levels.
Who, what, when and where
Managed availability therefore solves the 'who, what, when and where' of communications. Presence and availability management tools put users firmly in charge of their communication devices. People can even leave their phone on during an important meeting confident in the knowledge that it will only ring in a genuine emergency. Why? Because users define their own rules that help them decrease interruption while simultaneously increasing their availability.
Presence and management are powerful communications parameters that minimise telephone tag, thereby boosting personal productivity, yet at the same time reducing stress. They also allow one colleague to talk to another immediately when there is a need to react to an event or an urgent issue.
Introducing real-time managed communications is the quickest way of cheering up the SAD office worker. The trick is to ensure that you control the technology, rather than it controlling you.
Rob House is Head of Collaboration and Integrity Solutions for Siemens Communications and can be contacted via tel: +44 1908 855 000; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org www.siemenscomms.co.uk