A Pact with the Devil

In the Nineties and early Noughties, it looked like civilisation was making progress in the office. Debates on “work-life balance” were all the rage, and as usual, some hopeful gurus, and the odd business school, even went way over the top by peddling ‘spiritual intelligence’ as the successor zeitgeist to emotional intelligence. Legislative improvements such as maternity and paternity rights weighed in too, and it did look as though those corporate cultures that demanded long hours as a badge of commitment were going to be seriously pushed back.

There were, however, already signs that these trends were being complicated and undermined by technological developments. Having championed the abandonment of paper communication systems in favour of email in the company I worked for, it wasn’t long before I stopped feeling pleased with myself and started to have some worries. We had placed communicative power in the hands of our people several orders of magnitude greater than they had ever experienced before; but we had done so without establishing the values and protocols that should have governed use. Things went predictably bonkers. As LANs linked up to become WANs, and the internet blew out all boundaries, unrestrained nerdery emerged. Some people gleefully compiled huge distribution lists, and spraying bemused recipients with large quantities of low importance messages. Getting email usage established had taken a lot of effort; establishing sensible use took much longer.

Just as we thought we had it cracked, technology came back at us again in the form of modems. It became possible to access cyberspace from anywhere with a phone line. My company moved into a brand new head office complex near Heathrow, which had been deliberately designed with nowhere near enough office space to accommodate its staff. We embraced concepts like “hoteling” and “drop-in spaces”. What it all added up to was that for part of the time we had to work at home. This was embraced with enthusiasm by all. The work still had to be done, and to the required standard, but if you were on school run that day, you could do it without it being a workplace issue. If you got a ticket for a Wimbledon final, that could be accommodated too. It was outputs that counted now, and input systems were to become as archaic as factory clocking in cards. Work-life balance seemed to have arrived.

However, there was a dark side looming. Having a clear boundary between company time and one’s own time had its advantages. You could relax, switch off from work, and give other things your undivided attention. This seemed doubly important because stress-awareness was on the rise.

Enter broadband, wireless environment, and Blackberry. You now had a firm handle on the world, but there was a cost – the world now also had a firm handle on you. If laptop accessed emails were compulsive, Blackberry was addictive. It was nicknamed “Crack-berry” for good reason. Other layers piled in, like SMS texting, visual phone and Skype. A friend of mine, who loves all this, proudly proclaimed that he even kept his device in his belt on the beach while on holiday in Mauritius. This would appear to embrace the possibility that if he fumbled accepting a call, some hapless Skyper could be confronted with a dimly lit image of the inside of his shorts. You have been warned.

Apart from potentially setting back work-life balance a couple of decades, such intrusive technology brings with it information overload, and attention fragmentation. We have all appreciated, at least in theory, that decision-takers, process designers, holders of creative functions, trouble-shooters, and many more key function holders, need reflective time out. The most critical trap is how we address those issues that are strategically important, but for the time being not urgent. Do you wait until they become urgent, or do you set aside periods of time to get them sorted out? In 1967, Peter Drucker stated that “most of the tasks of the executive require, for minimum effectiveness, a fairly large quantum of time.” Drucker was clear that it was necessary to leave fire-breaks in your schedule, and big ones at that, where no intrusions (by which he meant telephone calls – remember those?) were allowed.

Of course we all agreed with this. I went on an in-house course where we were entreated never to allow back-to-back meetings to be placed in our schedules. No thinking time you see. Persuaded and enthused, I duly briefed my secretary. I did a double – take and caught her looking at me with pity in her eyes, as though I would be hanged in a fortnight. I didn’t last a fortnight – it took my boss half a day to bluster into my office to enquire, non-too-politely, why the hell I appeared to have so little availability in my diary. “Because  I need quality thinking time in this job, and I can’t get it when I have to attend endless meetings to listen to your ego-fuelled drivel.” (Was what I didn’t say). Meekly, I reverted to back-to-back meetings. Stand down brains -  won’t be needing  you after all.

Executives have always felt themselves to be up against the clock, but today, the pressure to surrender precious time to new internet based viral networks is relentless and almost irresistible.  I am supposed to blog, to tweet, and be linked-in, to say nothing of covering bets with lesser gods of the space, face and tube variety. A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly reports executives trying to fit what used to be thought of as real work in the spaces left between these new must-do activities. The overriding question has become are they really must-do; and if you decide they are, how do you get other must-do jobs done, let alone find time for creative strategic thinking?

Information overload is here and now. It confronts us on a daily basis. If left unchallenged and unmanaged it will weaken the effectiveness of decision-takers and destroy value. We have made a pact with the Devil. Sustained business success is based on creative decisions, and these don’t come best in the white noise environment we have created for ourselves.  To survive this onslaught we have to take a long cold look at what delivers enough value to be worth the time – and then delegate it if possible. The real danger is allowing ourselves to be persuaded that we have no choices, and that we must participate in most or all of them. That way madness lies.

Peter Saxton
April 2011
©Capstick Saxton Associates