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Workplace productivity: How technology can be both friend and foe

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16 2012 10:10 p.m. MST

When it comes to increasing your workplace productivity, will technological advancements and the latest digital devices bring benefit or just slow you down?

Although the answer isn't always clear-cut, some recent articles suggest the following rule of thumb: more technology may initially yield greater workplace efficiency — but only to a point. In other words, some employees who toil in offices that are already supersaturated with gadgets galore will actually benefit from setting down their smartphones once in a while.

The Wall Street Journal published an article Tuesday about workplace distractions, and the steps employers are taking to eliminate the most egregious of those distractions.

"Distraction at the office is hardly new, but as screens multiply and managers push frazzled workers to do more with less, companies say the problem is worsening and is affecting business," Rachel Emma Silverman wrote for the Journal. "While some firms make noises about workers wasting time on the Web, companies are realizing the problem is partly their own fault."

Silverman's article provided five real-world examples of corporate strategies for thwarting distractions by eliminating or downsizing employee dependence on advanced technologies: instructing employees to emphasize phone calls over email, implementing a no-device policy during team meetings, giving employees four hours every week of heads-down "think time," completely phasing out internal email and reducing the number of ongoing large projects.

However, at places like medical offices that revolve around reams of paper forms and a steady stream of faxes, cutting-edge social-media technology offers a direct pathway to enhanced efficiency.

"In this digital age, U.S. physicians still send and receive some 15 billion faxes a year," USA Today reported in August. "But not Dr. Howard Luks, chief of sports medicine and knee replacements at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. Luks, whose practice operates as a small business, is an avid user of Doximity, a Facebook-like social network for health care professionals. The service, launched 17 months ago, has enabled Luks to nurture a close-knit circle of about a dozen referring doctors and specialists with whom he confers and shares records on a daily basis, mostly on his iPhone."

In response to Silverman's Wall Street Journal piece, Forbes staff writer Susan Adams proposed several "technologically agnostic" management strategies for enhancing workers' focus.

"If you're the one who has to get other people's attention," Adams wrote, "you can break through their distraction by whetting their appetites with a bit of information and then waiting to reveal everything you intend to impart until the end of the conversation or meeting. You can also structure a meeting like a mystery that needs to be solved. Ask a compelling question at the outset and tell the participants they need to come up with an answer by the end. …

"If you're structuring a focus group recruiting project and you have goals to meet, think of those goals as a mystery that you will crack over the coming days or weeks. If you are a lawyer or financial planner, conceive of each project as a challenge and yourself as a detective searching for an answer. Your email, phone and colleagues will try to pull your attention away, but you may become so engrossed in solving your puzzle that you can concentrate until you find the answers. And maybe you can engross your colleagues in it too."

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

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