Last night I watched a program on the design of the Sony Walkman. You know, the original one from 1979. The iPod in tape form. There started the marvellous slippery slope to wired teenagers, of which I was one.
But we need to go way back further than than the Walkman if we wish to apportion blame. When Thomas Edison was a boy one would have to hoick oneself to the town square to hear the latest in music, bang away at one’s own piano or perhaps one would attend a musical soiree at a well-to-do neighbour’s house. Then Thomas found a way to record this music. No longer would we have to schlep to the town square on a cold winter’s night because the music could come to us. A marvellous thing.
A pity he didn’t foresee that his innocuous invention would result in teens all over the world coming to the dinner table wired for sound. It’s one thing to have your teen grunt at you in reply to a question; it is quite another thing for her to not even realise you’ve asked something. It’s enough to make you grab your own iPod and eat quietly to the life soundtrack of your choice.
In 2008 our family unwired and gave up screens of any kind for a week, during the winter school holidays, and found that it was a remarkably easy thing to do. The kids got to taste was boredom was like and like Dante’s Inferno they entered the nine circles of hell to emerge the other side having known themselves a little better.
And now I have business in my sights.
Returning to a corporate office after five years living and working from home I was shocked at how technology had seemed to contribute to the stress and workload of my colleagues. On my first day I was presented with a BlackBerry® and a lap-top. Welcome to the 24/7 workday.
When I last went to a corporate meeting people would turn up with a pad of paper and a pen. Now everyone had a laptop open and their BlackBerry® at their fingertips. No-one was interested in the speaker because they were either completing their upcoming presentation, checking their emails or working on something completely unrelated to the meeting at hand. Sometimes all three.
Ideas didn’t seem to carry weight unless supported by a PowerPoint presentation and far from reducing printing costs they seem to have increased with everyone simultaneously reading the PowerPoint presentation on the screen and writing notes on the colour print-out made earlier. The notes may or may not have been connected to the presentation – more likely to be a list of emails to be sent during the meeting.
With so many employees crying out that they are worked to the bone I can see why. They are connected 24/7 and if they mistakenly respond to an email at 10pm then they’ve opened the floodgates of expectation.
When I studied organisational communication we were taught that organisations talk themselves into being. In the past this talk was in the hands of an inter-office memo, a report or a speech from the CEO. Now it is in the hands of anyone with access to email.
In an effort to control the 24/7 exhaustion of the workplace Sony executives recently agreed that it was reasonable for the leadership team to respond to emails and phone calls in an 8am-8pm timeframe. After that your time was your own. In another company one senior leader decided that each evening to think of the 2-3 critical things he had to resolve the next day and devote 90 minutes to doing so the next morning before he turned on his electronic media.
You know technology has done a lot of good and a lot of bad. We both know it. These companies have taken a great step. But I think we need to make a corporate statement. I’d like to start a low-technology week where businesses agree to go old school and communicate by phone, in person and with the pen. Bring back the inter-office memo for a week, send a letter, ring your colleague or supplier instead of shooting off an email and *gasp* turn up to a meeting with nothing more than your voice, a pad and a pen (the purpose being to actually discuss and resolve something).
My bet is that despite an early shock the result would be a week of bliss. Exempt from the expectation of the 35 slide PowerPoint and the 24 second reply employees, customers and suppliers might actually speak with one another and those rubbish emails which have no point will simply not.be.sent. If you don’t think it is possible think back to your office circa 1992. You did it then, and other than having to warn your external customers (and encourage them to join with you) you know it would be possible.
Anyone with me?
*all power to Dilbert's mate Mr Adams, Sony, Thomas E and the person who came up with the BlackBerry cartoon. It is to them that you should direct your thanks for their images (Thomas E may be a little hard to get hold of).