There is growing unrest among managers who notice employees dealing with non-work related tasks and occupations during business hours. Those who complain about the growing place assigned to personal activities during office hours commonly blame it all on the workforce’s lack of discipline. In their eyes, personnel cannot resist making the most of the multiple connections offered by modern communications. As a result, they surf the Internet while answering professional emails, listen to music while compiling reports or tweet non-stop with friends while attending a meeting. Most remarkable is the fact that this new wave of management discontent follows older discontent expressed a decade or two ago by employees (and often by their relatives) who used to complain of how work life ‘infected’ the family sphere. There was a time when costly mobile phones and Internet connections were paid for by the company to allow employees to keep in touch with the office on a permanent basis. Some would therefore argue that before the office started to be colonised by personal activities, the reverse was true and what was once perceived as a contagion of the private sphere by the professional world is now seen as perfectly natural. Boundaries between work and private life are becoming more and more blurred. It is neither new nor original to say so but it is glaringly true. In short, it could be that providing smartphones to allow employees to be contactable at any moment is producing unintended consequences that are even the opposite of what was intended.
What has perhaps not been suggested before is that the cause of this gradual two-way intrusion in private and business lives comes from the fact that both our personal and professional lives now pass by the same space: the screen. In other words, we perhaps need to take very literally the expression that there is no boundary anymore between private and professional occupations as the two take place on the same laptops, tablets and smartphones. Of course there is currently a surge in the range of supports that give us access to our professional and personal networks and applications on-line. All these devices actually grant us access to the same content with more and more ease and in more and more situations. So, why is this on-going technical revolution not solely reinforcing work’s invasion of family life (as in the past) but is also having the opposite effect?
One respect in which modern screens are radically different from their predecessors is that they are multifaceted. Where former devices simply granted access at distance to the (virtual) office, more recent technology allows us to be simultaneously in different places, with different people, taking part in different practices. We all experience on a daily basis simultaneous phone calls with the family and the boss, or the same effect when juggling friends and suppliers. Keeping almost constant track of the work screen, one or two mailboxes, skype and a couple of social networks makes such situations both natural and unavoidable. Employees are bound to have more interruptions during their work as they use the same avenues for doing that work as they explore in their social life. If this is a valid description of a common work environment, it can also be argued that it differs little from what constitutes a large number of home environments. How many of us answer professional requests on a Sunday while surfing initially for leisure purposes on the Internet? The screen has become a platform, an agora, where we may encounter just about anyone, colleagues and friends, at just about any time.
The worrying aspect of such an evolution is that being engaged in several activities at the same time tends to be very demanding and sometimes almost too complicated. Millions of office workers worldwide deal on a daily basis with a massive amount of private and professional emails, private and professional Powerpoint presentations, private and professional alerts, phone calls, deadlines and other images and documents, created, viewed and managed via a screen. The crucial question is therefore to understand when such members of the workforce decide to be employees, or friends, or colleagues, or spouses etc. depending on the short-term solicitations they choose to deal with.
Attention can be split but loses sharpness in the process. Most often attention should focus on one task at a time. In practice, it passes quite quickly from one activity to another concentrating on each for a very short period of time. Even so, priorities have to be given to those tasks deemed the most pressing. Too often, it is not the nature of the task that gives a notion of its urgency but rather the media by which it arrives. An email is usually considered less urgent than a phone call; a tweet is faster to answer than a post in a blog, etc. The different media therefore compete for our attention and there is a tendency to simplify requests and make them easily visible. A message that is glaringly visible and can be solved quickly is much more likely to be dealt with than one that is understated and requires more effort. An extreme example of this is can be seen in some modern management software that requires users to turn red signals into green ones.
To see how this functions we need look no further than tools such as the computer-based management system widely used in business: Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). A sales video designed to vaunt the merits of ERP allows us to grasp quickly what this tool is meant to bring to the workplace. In each sequence of the film those shown using ERP focus solely on the screen’s visual display, employ the mouse as their means of taking action and see the people, resources and projects to be managed as colour-coded elements on their screen. Red, yellow, and green signals show the state of the person, resource or project in question. In this way, a yellow alert warns a project manager that a key member of staff is missing from the project team. A scroll down the online human resources database allows the right profile to be chosen from amongst the personnel listed. The project manager clicks, drags, and drops the name of the right person from the database into the project roster. The colleague chosen receives an email giving details of the new assignment and the yellow alert switches to a satisfying green.
This example shows that tools such as ERP contribute to what we can define as ‘abstract management.’ Workers meet virtually and organise their respective contributions to common goals through representations rather than reality. The office has in essence become a virtual world.
If this seems a little far-fetched, observations made in-company confirm that this can indeed be the case. A case study carried out at a firm distributing duty-free products such as perfumes, alcohol, and tobacco to airports shows that the gulf between the on-screen version of reality and the true business activity can be considerable.
Proof of this comes in the shape of estimations made by operational managers on future trends. Based on the reality of the business, these projections are changed by higher level managers behind closed doors so that new revised targets are set. What therefore becomes important is the generation of figures and data not the true reflection of what the firm is today or will be tomorrow.
Such a figure hungry system requires users to input large amounts of daily data. Often, they find themselves overwhelmed by these reporting duties and devote all their time and attention to feeding the computer tool that is supposed to make their office life easier. Confronted by a never ending flow of tasks, they prefer not to get in touch with the operational staff as keeping such a distance allows them to save the time needed to cope with the demands from top management.
All the attention is therefore focused on the numbers game at the expense of real management-related issues. As a result, any exchanges tend to be more about accounting innovations than about operational ones. Bizarrely, computer tools designed to help the operational side of a firm have become instruments of strategic interaction through which people try to outwit each other over budget issues and other data. Work resembles a videogame but one in which tasks have to be completed quickly, without much consideration for the wider goals or the actual effects of the moves made on the screen. Such a virtual environment plays a major role in replacing real-life experiences with abstract representations. As a result, managing and socialising through computers prevents managers from being aware of the consequences of their actions, makes them indifferent to others and leads to oversimplification that favours routine behaviour.
In the past, this kind of context, typical of the office, contrasted with the familiar world of the home seen as an escape from the flow of digital demands. It hardly needs to be stated that today computer technology pervades all aspects of society including both the work and personal spheres. As a result, the two environments tend to merge and to have less and less physical or temporal boundaries. In short, all our worlds feel the influence of the same few screens. Indeed, one now has to be schizophrenic to be able to simultaneously satisfy the roles of employee and private individual. Only those people who simply live to work and those who do not work at all escape this dichotomy. Many will view such a state of affairs as progress. However, this is debatable if one considers the effect a computer-defined world has on the link individuals establish between their work and its environment both within and outside the office.
In addition, doing several things at once encourages simplification, whether in the quality of the work done or the quality of one’s social network of friends. Is it really surprising that the very same employees who try to turn red alerts into green lights on their office screens then profit from any free moments in their workday to collect “likes” and add more “virtual friends”. How can we blame someone who looks at work projects on a Sunday while surfing the social networks when that same person does the reverse 12 hours later on a Monday morning?
The final question, and maybe the most important one, is therefore how to prevent solicitations alien to the world of work from invading the screen when in the office (and vice-versa)? More generally, because the issue is clearly not limited to firms but concerns all forms of activity, the question is how to react when employees chat with friends while at work, when our husband or wife answers professional emails at dinner or when students surf the Internet during lectures.
Trying to control the on-screen activities of millions of individuals is both morally reprehensible and without a doubt inefficient. Perhaps a more measured response would be to encourage those in charge to set out a list of activities that are to be conducted outside the realm of screens. Such non-screen activities would make ubiquity impossible and create a context where the notions of time and co-presence are immediately experienced.
In a classroom, for example, it is not via a sanction or through repression that one can hope to regain the attention of all those present. When the most important concepts are debated, when every person needs to take part or when it is vital to encourage active thinking, the simplest way is often to revert to pre-screen techniques. In this way, there is no shame in going back to pen and paper, to face-to-face exchanges in small workgroups and to larger collective debates which help generate the best ideas that can then be presented via slides or videos. Such exercises, limited in time, force everyone to abandon for a while the precious gifts of the virtual world and to become again a person in a set place and time with no other option but to focus on one task only.
While effective, such a method is not to be overused. Generally, at university, in companies and sometimes even at home, we need to spend time in front of a screen and there is no doubt that it has enhanced our lives in many ways. Nevertheless, managers, teachers and possibly parents have to decide what tasks really do require 100% dedication from those involved and to make sure such activities are carried out away from the virtual screen world.
By François-Régis Puyou, associate professor, Accounting, Management Control, Audit at Audencia Nantes School of Management, France