A little less conversation and a lot more imagination

Why employers need to think rather than react….

Currently analysing in the region of 30,000 survey responses to do with how people use the internet and their preferences around social media and mobile technology. It won’t be a surprise to many people to know that there is a richer diversity in the digital channels people use for personal communication, than they do for work. Many companies have put blanket-bans on “social” communication channels such as Instant Messenger and Facebook, with the understandable concern that it reduces productivity and generates an unprofessional image. Whilst the logic behind anti-social policies is understandable, if companies aren’t careful they will simply drive social platforms towards a platform they’re unable to monitor such as Mobile, but it’s also immensely sad and a tad patronising to remove these tools because employees are not trusted.

Some respondents made comments like “I don’t want to be on Twitter, because I already get too many emails”, which is fair enough. Approximately 98% of the people we surveyed use email. This makes sense, it’s the most established digital channel. I just question whether the rejection of social networking is valid on the basis that it’s email which may not be working, rather than new communication methods being inappropriate.

I am fortunate as a digital planner to have [almost] free reign on what I can download onto my computer, after all we have to test this space to form a point of view, which then has commercial value. I therefore have TweetDeck, Adium and Yammer installed on my machine, in addition to logging into iGoogle, Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis. I have a Delicious toolbar installed in two browsers (I use Firefox, Flock and Chrome) and most of Tweets and blog posts are now automatically streamed into Facebook or LinkedIn.

Of course, having the tools is only half the solution, we also need to reconsider social etiquette and the most effective ways to engage a response, without jeopardising the longevity of attention. For example, take this rant by Seth Godin, where he presents his frustration on “The inefficiency of the all call“, essentially criticising the lazy behaviour of mass emails, which when repeated over time, reduce our desire to engage with these messages. I’ve also been known to get a tad angsty on this matter when I return form holiday to find my inbox full of emails where I’ve been cc’d “for my information”. I wonder what the difference in time (and relationship) would be if we took 20 minutes to summarise the important points that an absent colleague needs to absorb, rather than just leaving it up to them to plough their way through 15 different emails on a  project and then come back with questions.

There’s also the controversy over the inefficiency of open plan offices. Jason Fried has received a lot of attention of late, due to his articulation on “Why you can’t work at work“. He argues that it’s not always an increased workload that forces us to spend more time in the office, it’s our culture of interruptions. We spend our 9-5 time constantly fragmenting our attention and that of others, using our 5-9 time to do the work that requires real thought.

And why should all this innovation in communication be confined to our personal lives? After all… we do in fact spend most of our time at work. As Kristina Höök pointed out in her talk “Mind Mouse and Body: Designing Engaging Technologies” at the Edinburgh Science Festival recently… we are mobile creatures and usually sociable ones… we have complex brains and diverse emotional vocabularies and yet… we spend our lives sitting down in front of a screen, using a tiny proportion of the vocabulary and expression with which we are naturally equipped.

There is some evidence, both in the surveys I’ve looked at and in the media, that we are simply sticking our heads in the sand.  Mark Hooper in last week’s The Observer on Sunday) went cold turkey by just “giving up the internet“. Does it really have to be all or nothing? At some point the world will evolve to a degree, that we (and by “we” I really mean “you” as an employer) have to start integrating the benefits of email with other communication channels and technologies, to enable and empower us to manage the mind boggling volume of information ahead. We can’t dodge it, but we can manage it: finding the necessary patience and imagination to develop an analogue, rather than digital response.