Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society


Workplace Special, Part 2: Technology’s Productivity Paradox
Workers Newly Enabled — But Not Necessarily to Work
By Peter Dizikes. ABCNews.com, May 2, 2001

Technology has changed the way we work. But has it made us more productive?

Some observers of the economy have argued that computers have made companies more efficient and productive.

But the view from the office floor is not necessarily the same. Workers often speak in glowing terms of the ways technology has shaped their jobs  and yet they maintain a heightened awareness of the drawbacks that technology imposes as well.

E-mail, for instance, makes communication faster; but it can also lead to time-wasting mix-ups and useless messages. Internet access allows workers to find information more easily; it also distracts for workers. Remote access has given some workers more flexibility, but employees may not work better on their own.

Indeed, as the vaunted “new economy” is increasingly seen to operate under the same rules as the old one, discussions of technology and productivity seem to revolve more and more around things like unintended consequences, bite-back effects and other paradoxes of the workplace.

You’ve Got Confusion

For instance, although many workers love e-mail, they have come to understand its potential drawbacks, as well. E-mail messages can be unclear and force workers into the very conversations that e-mail was meant to obviate.

Nariman Teymourian, president of Caspian Consulting, a San Francisco firm that provides technology for health-care companies, notes the way e-mail has helped spread information  but also creates excessive memos and needless electronic versions of paper trails.

“The fact that you can disseminate the same information in the same way to many people, that has improved productivity,” says Teymourian. “However, the part that is becoming inefficient is that people are using e-mail just to cover for themselves.”

And then there are e-mail exchanges that simply result in mix-ups, confusion and frustration, and force workers into old-fashioned conversations in order to make things happen.

“We have a rule around here,” adds Jim Larente, director of applications development for Caspian. “If you are e-mailing back and forth with somebody and you don’t understand the message, you have to pick up the phone right away and talk to them.”

Web of Distraction

Meanwhile, Internet access has become an enormous boon for workers needing to find information  and an enormous boondoggle for companies, when those workers spend time surfing the Web instead of working.

A study released in 2000 by the California-based Saratoga Institute found that nearly two-thirds of firms in the United States have sanctioned employees for abusing their Internet privileges, while more than 30 percent have fired workers for policy violations including online gambling, day trading, online day trading, accessing pornography on the Web, or just too much Web surfing in general.

Among the best-known companies axing workers for Internet violations: Dow Chemical, First Union, The New York Times Co. and Xerox.

Jac Fitz-enz, founder of the Saratoga Institute, says it’s nearly impossible to project the total monetary cost that all this time-wasting has on the economy. But he does estimate that work distractions like the Web can reduce an employee’s productivity by 10 percent to 15 percent.

“There are all kinds of ways to waste time,” says Fitz-enz. “You don’t need a computer for that. But computers make it easier.”

Thinking Outside the Cube

All of this means companies may have to think more creatively about work environments in order to ensure productivity.

A report released in December by a University of Michigan team indicated that groups of software engineers at a major auto company were more productive when placed together in an open “war room” setting.

“The biggest factor was the constant communication,” says Stephanie Teasley, an assistant research scientist in the Collaboratory for Electronic Work at Michigan’s School of Information who helped conduct the study.

Thus companies wanting to evaluate their productivity might want to look beyond hours worked, and consider how to help workers cooperate more efficiently.

“We think about work as being what we call either ‘tightly coupled’ or ‘loosely coupled,’” says Teasley, describing situations in which workers cannot proceed until they receive information from co-workers. “The bigger the delay between a question and its answer, the more that slows down productivity.”

And Fitz-enz, for his part, says companies can boost productivity simply by nurturing their relationships with employees more carefully.

“Why do workers waste their time?” asks Fitz-enz. “It’s because they’re bored or angry. If I’m happy with my job, I’m only going to spend a little bit of time on the Web. It’s the same thing with absenteeism. It’s not because workers are sick, it’s because they’re angry.”

Which means that creative business ideas about productivity may have little to do with the trendy workplace changes of recent years, like the laissez-faire office rules associated with some dot-coms and technology companies.

“How do you create a place where people want to come to work?” asks Fitz-enz. “It isn’t because they can bring their dog to work or get a haircut. It’s because of the way they’re treated in general.”


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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.

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