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So Many Messages, So Little Time

Technology: What with voicemail, e-mail, phones, faxes and pagers, today's workers are increasingly suffering from information overload.

May 16, 1997|STEVEN GINSBERG | THE WASHINGTON POST

The first thing Jerry Grochow does each morning is listen to his voicemail messages. Then he checks his e-mail. Then he dials up his other voicemail system. And finally he logs in to his other e-mail account.

"Voicemail has replaced prayers for me," said Grochow, 50, chief technology officer for American Management Systems Inc. in Fairfax, Va. "It's the first thing I do when I get up and it's the last thing I do before I go to sleep."

Besides two voicemail and two e-mail accounts, Grochow has a pager, a fax machine and a cellular phone. So it's easy for him to keep connected--which is precisely the problem.

Workers such as Grochow are finding it increasingly difficult to handle the glut of messages and the constant communication that technology has put at their fingertips. Ostensibly the technology is aimed at easing people's workload; instead it is, for many, eating up time and adding unnecessary stress.

"I spend three to four hours a day dealing with messages," Grochow said. "My workday has become 24 hours a day because of all the communication technology. You have to watch yourself; if you respond to every message you'll drive yourself crazy. It would be as if you participated in every conversation in the hallway and at the water cooler."

A recent study by the Institute for the Future, the Gallup Organization, Pitney Bowes Inc. and San Jose State University found what workers like Grochow already know: With technology has come communications gridlock.

The study, based on responses from more than 1,000 employees of Fortune 1,000 companies, found that workers send and receive an average of 178 messages each day through such vehicles as voicemail, e-mail, faxes and pagers.

The most frequent tools were telephone (24 messages a day), e-mail (14 a day) and voicemail (11 a day). Eighty-four percent of respondents said their work is interrupted by messages at least three times an hour.

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The deluge is largely due to a couple of worries about technology and human habits. Many people do not fully trust technology, so they send the same information through a number of systems to make sure it gets there. Others aren't sure how often the recipient will check voicemail or e-mail, so they feel compelled to cover all their bases.

The result is the reverse of what's intended: People actually have a harder time getting the message.

The seemingly constant introduction of communications systems adds to the gridlock. When new--and potentially better--technology is introduced, companies eagerly start using it, but often they don't coordinate with what they already have.

The study found that "technological advancements do not replace traditional methods, but were layered over existing ones, and substantially increased the communications message load."

Still, technology companies are trying to cure their own ills. New digital cellular phones have a pager, voicemail and caller ID wrapped into one device. Nextel Communications Inc. is taking the concept one step further with a two-way radio link that will enable employees to communicate via a high-tech version of the walkie-talkie.

"I definitely believe [workers] don't have a more simplified life because of communication tools," said Nancy Ozawa, director of strategic planning groups for the Institute for the Future. "Each new technology leads to a lot of inefficiencies. People try to accommodate [the change] but it ends up creating four times the amount of labor."

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Clear company guidelines are one practical way to help stem the message flood, Ozawa said. For example, if a company required checking and responding to e-mail every two hours, people would know if a message was received. The study found that 69% of Fortune 1,000 companies do not have such policies.

"Technology is a double-edged sword," said A'isha Ajayi, an assistant professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of "Understanding Electronic Communication" (Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, 1996). "Nobody has the rules down yet. People don't know what type of message to send for what. The things we use as enablers are abused and misunderstood and consume our lives and time. They make the stress level extremely high."

One group of the message-burdened is getting help: top-level executives. The demands on their time have led some companies to establish what the study calls "mission control"--a group of employees who help top-level staffers navigate through the communication chaos.

Mission control essentially does what secretaries have done for decades: take messages for the boss and pass along pertinent information. The difference is that today, that means sifting through a multitude of communications systems, not just answering the phone.

Mission-control workers' grasp of technology must extend beyond deleting extraneous messages, however; they often are asked to convert material from one medium to another. A typical situation might involve getting information by voicemail, transcribing it and sending it by e-mail, fax or cellular phone, based on what's most convenient for the recipient.

Underscoring the frantic nature of all this message traffic, even Ajayi, a communications authority, gets gridlocked.

"I've had six messages on my answer machine for two days because I don't have time to check them," she said.

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