June 16, 2008
At the Office, Too Much Information
By Matt Richtel
The onslaught of cellphone calls, e-mail and instant messages is fracturing attention spans and hurting productivity. It is a common complaint. But now the very companies that helped create the flood are trying to mop it up.
Some of the biggest technology firms, including Microsoft, Intel, Google and IBM, are banding together to fight information overload.
Last week they formed a nonprofit group to study the problem, publicize it and devise ways to help workers - theirs and others - cope with the digital deluge.
Their effort comes as there is mounting statistical and anecdotal evidence that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.
The big chip maker Intel found in an eight-month internal study that some employees who were encouraged to limit digital interruptions said they were more productive and creative as a result.
Intel and other companies are already experimenting with solutions. Small units at some companies are encouraging workers to check e-mail messages less frequently, to send group messages more judiciously and to avoid letting the drumbeat of digital missives constantly shake up and reorder to-do lists.
A Google software engineer last week introduced E-Mail Addict, an experimental feature for the company's e-mail service that lets people cut themselves off from their in-boxes for 15 minutes.
Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at the research firm Basex and a member of the new group's board, said that the companies realized they faced a monster of their own creation. He pointed to a Silicon Valley maxim that companies should "eat their own dog food," meaning they should make use of their own innovations.
"They're realizing they're eating too much," Spira said.
Many people readily recognize that they face - or invite - continual interruption, but the emerging data on the scale of the problem may come as a surprise.
A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to one measure by RescueTime, a company that analyzes computer use habits. The company, which draws its data from 40,000 people who have tracking software on their computers, found that on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day.
The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 million a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions - predominately nonurgent digital communication, according to Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time people take to recover from an interruption and return to work.
Companies are also realizing that there is money to be made in helping workers reduce their digital gluttony. Major corporations around the world are searching for ways to keep software tools from becoming distractions, said John Tang, a researcher at IBM, who is a member of the new group.
"There's a competitive advantage of figuring out how to address this problem," Tang said. He said that there was "a certain amount of irony" in the fact that the solutions are coming from the very companies that built the digital systems in the first place.
Members of the new organization, called the Information Overload Research Group, planned to have their first meeting in July in New York.
The group plans to seek solutions, both cultural and technological.
For its part, Intel started two experiments last September with 300 engineers and other employees at a chip-design group based in Austin, Texas, and with some team members in Chandler, Arizona.
In the first experiment, employees had four hours on Tuesday mornings when they were encouraged to limit both digital and in- person contact.
Laminated cards were made up announcing "quiet time" and attached to cubicles. But within a few weeks the workers found the system too restrictive, and the cards seemed like something from grade school.
The cards came down, and some employees started to use e-mail messages, though judiciously and with more awareness of their habits, while others continued the stricter regimen, said Brad Beavers, the Austin site manager.
In a survey, nearly three-quarters of participants said that the quiet time routine should be extended to the rest of the company.
"It's huge. We were expecting less," said Nathan Zeldes, an Intel engineer who led the experiments and who for a decade has been studying the impact of technology on productivity. "When people are uninterrupted, they can sit back and design chips and really think."
In the other experiment, called "zero e-mail Fridays," the goal was to encourage employees to favor face-to-face communication.
Beavers said that employees liked the idea in theory, but they continued to send e-mail messages, finding them essential.
Just 30 percent of employees endorsed the program, but 60 percent recommended it for wider use at Intel, with modifications.
"We're trying to address the problem that people get so addicted to e-mail that they will send an e-mail across an aisle, across a partition, and that's not a good thing," he said.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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