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June 01, 2005
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Michael Schubach, CHTP - michael.schubach@pinehurst.com

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© 2005 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

There is a sinister presence in the workplace that stalks today’s highly automated, electronically connected working professional. According to a penetrating study commissioned by Hewlett Packard, “Doziness, lethargy and an increasing inability to focus reached ‘startling’ levels in the trials by 1,100 people…” as they struggled with a form of substance abuse that has “an addictive, drug-like grip” on its users. And what is this epidemic sweeping through the corridors of business and industry? It is nothing less than the dreaded propagation of e-mail.

The technology that was hailed as a productivity savior apparently has a dark side – one that might potentially outweigh its advantages. For years now I’ve listened to technology professionals wonder aloud, “is it possible that the system users are actually getting dumber?” Not only is it possible, it is now an established clinical fact. According to recent articles in the British media (including The Guardian, The Daily Mail and reports from BBC News), the Hewlett Packard study revealed that habitual e-mail users suffered an average IQ loss of 10 points. This was compared to the use of cannabis (or marijuana as you might know it on this side of the pond); those users suffer an average IQ loss of only four points. Astoundingly e-mail makes you two and one half times as stupid as getting loaded, and apparently it doesn’t matter with whom you are corresponding. “This is a very real and widespread phenomenon,” according to Glenn Wilson, a psychologist from King’s College, London University, who conducted the clinical trials.

The problem, it seems, centers on our inability to ignore the siren call of inbound messages, which in turn causes sudden shifts in focus and activity that fatigue the brain and result in, well, stupidness. Or is it stupidity? I forget, but I am relieved to discover that my mental deterioration is an occupational hazard. I send and receive an average of 50 e-mails each business day, not including standard daily operation reports, change control advisory notices, unsolicited pharmacy offers, bogus stock market tips and impassioned pleas from various third-world potentates asking if they can use my checking account to hide millions of dollars.

“Addiction” may seem like a strange term to apply to the use of an office automation product but we, as a society, must confront reality and admit that e-mail junkies abound. I will never forget the look of panic and desperation on the face of one sales manager when he realized that the cruise his wife had booked for them was going to put him half an ocean from e-mail retrieval. He pleaded with me to install a satellite communications link before his departure on the following Saturday. When I suggested that he should just relax and enjoy a week off, he laughed hysterically and told me that I just didn’t understand the situation. I understood the situation only too well: this was a sad and pathetic cry for help.

Dr. Wilson agrees with my diagnosis. 62 percent of the study’s respondents check their e-mail while at home or on vacation, resulting in what the good doctor terms “a recipe for muddled thinking and poor performance.” Gains in production seem to be offset by the corrosion of healthy brains into pineapple gelatin.

In an effort to stem that tide, let’s review a few e-mail myths and see if we can’t adopt a more healthful outlook.

Myth No. 1
E-mail is efficient.

As a document delivery system nothing beats e-mail. And if you’re corresponding with New York, London and Singapore all at once, it is nothing shy of a godsend; half of e-mail recipients respond to messages within an hour. However, as a means to pass coherent thought content from one human being to another, you’d fare better with the marijuana alternative. I’ve been party to e-mail discussions lasting days that could have been resolved in minutes by using the phone instead. Don’t forget that there are other weapons in the communications arsenal.

And while we’re on the subject of coherent, I have one other tip. Very quickly, before your IQ plummets through the floor, turn on your automatic spell checker (if you can remember how). Please take into consideration the fact that you’re not as bright as you once were.

Myth No. 2
E-mail increases productivity.

If by productivity you mean the speed with which I was able to turn around that picture of President Bush at the Pope’s funeral asking his wife if Santa Claus was really dead, then yes, e-mail increased my productivity (and made me seem pretty funny at the same time). If, however, the statement above implies that we as a workforce are getting more of our important work done, then I’m afraid that nasty IQ drop has already taken place. If your to-do list does not include the entry “Answer every lame question that pops up on my machine,” ask yourself how you can manage to spend entire days doing nothing but that. Some people may view a series of rapid responses as productivity; it typically has more to do with coping with interruptions rather than generating work product.

To quote the article in The Guardian, “Respondent’s minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an e-mail dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night’s sleep.”

Myth No. 3
E-mail helps us be more civilized.

That statement alone is enough to make Miss Manners® come after you with a baseball bat. One in five of Dr. Wilson’s respondents felt it was acceptable to break off from meals or social events to deal with inbound messages. (Because I am a fan of public controversy, I would like to suggest that when you see such rudeness in progress you step up to that individual and remove his or her communication device. See what happens – it’s like trying to take car keys from a drunk.)

There was one encouraging note in the survey: 90 percent of the respondents felt it was rude to deal with messages during a face-to-face conference or office meeting. However, 21 percent said they do it anyway, and 33 percent of the respondents thought it had become “acceptable and seen as a sign of diligence and efficiency.” Worse yet is the effect that electronic communication is having on human interaction. Remember how hoteliers complained so bitterly that computers at the front desk caused service agents to spend the day looking down at a screen rather than up at a guest? I think those complainers need to look around their office areas – they’re likely to find that managers and supervisors have been similarly hijacked. Apparently along with our IQs, our hands-on service and guest interaction standards are dropping as well.

There are alternatives. E-mail can be managed rather than allowing it to drive a day’s activities, and the junkies can be rehabilitated. These ideas may not be as appealing as all this 21 Century progress, but a great deal is at stake and a mind is a terrible thing to… wait, what was I saying?

Michael Schubach, CHTP is vice president of resort technology for ClubResorts, the destination resort division of ClubCorp, headquartered in Dallas. Mr. Schubach has his office at Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina, the site of the very recent 2005 US Open golf championship. In defense of both his IQ and your own, he requests that you try to refrain from e-mailing him at michael.schubach@pinehurst.com. Or, if you must e-mail, please everyone do it all at once so that we can all go on from there and carpe what remains of the diem.

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