Friday, June 3, 2011

A Reprieve

The best way to make corporate employees happy is to give them a half-day on the Friday before a holiday weekend. The second-best way is to break the e-mail server.

Every day, when I get to work, I log into my computer, turn on the light above my desk, change my shoes, and promptly log into Outlook. I then spend the first 10-15 minutes looking through new messages, determining which ones must be answered immediately (i.e. emails from my boss or other supervisors), which ones will need to wait until I have more time (i.e. emails from outside the company, where a typo might be critical), which ones will require at least an hour's worth of work (often about a quarter of the emails), and which ones I probably don't have to read until tomorrow, or Friday, or next week. Once I have mentally sorted these emails and written myself a few post-it note reminders, I go make myself a cup of tea. The daily panic has begun.

Yesterday, for what I believe was the first time since I started working at Wiley, I arrived at work to an Inbox empty of new messages and a phone message informing me of the following:

"Good morning. This is Technology Report Services. The email client in North American offices is currently out of service. We are working hard to fix the problem and will--"

At this point I hit the *-3 key combination on my phone to delete the message. No email? Great! Now I could finally get some work done! And when I had a question to ask a colleague, I would . . . instant message them. Phone them. God forbid . . . get up from my desk and walk over to ask them in person.

It felt like a revolution had taken place. In those four hours free from incoming emails, I packaged and shipped eight boxes of conference materials, wrote copy for five fliers, generated a book list in Excel, researched articles for the blog (WiSci), faxed reservation packets to two conferences, and paid in-person visits to three different colleagues. More importantly, during those four hours, I felt completely focused and at ease. There were no phantom messages popping up in the bottom right-hand corner of my screen to alert me that someone needed something ASAP. I did not feel the compulsion to click into Outlook every five minutes to check and see what urgent messages I might be missing. Instead, I worked steadily through the morning and cleared three layers of paper off of my desk. Then, I went for a short run, made my lunch, and returned to my desk to find that "North American email service was back in operation." Fortunately, since most of my other colleagues hadn't had email all morning, either, there weren't too many messages awaiting me, and I had a moderately productive afternoon, as well.

I don't know if this experience has implications about the advent of technology and modern communication or if it just demonstrates that I am easily distracted by email and feel undue stress by constant string of demands from others that arrive via email. However, in either case, it makes me wonder what the office place felt like before the arrival of Internet and email. After all, that revolution only occurred about twenty years ago (or at least that was when the Internet became publicly available; its widespread use and dependence probably occurred even more recently). Were people stuck on the phone all day long? Did they silently do work at their desks? Was there more office chatter and less click-clack of keyboards? And most of all: would I have liked it better?

1 comment:

Mike S said...

Great post! It's amazing the productivity employees have when they're not being bothered. I feel the same way on days before big holidays.