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February 03, 2006
Working In Unreal-Time

There's no getting around the fact that the current generation of knowledge workers is overworked. The messaging technologies that promised to make our lives easier have, instead, made us more efficient and elevated performance expectations. We are now able juggle more balls at once and require less support personnel to accomplish bigger projects in less time.

And we're working harder than ever.

David Ferris of Ferris Research recently wrote down his thoughts in the on why this is the case. He observes that all of the stages in the work processes before messaging technologies took hold are now compressed or eliminated. Often times, there were breaks between the various stages, hand-offs that allowed natural breathers or downtime. Documents were dictated and prepared, sent somewhere and sent back again. It all took days and weeks.

Today, the workflow is compressed; we prepare documents ourselves and the transfer times are measured in seconds. So naturally, the business cycle times have greatly reduced. Ferris said this lack of throttling increases productivity but adds to the feeling of being constantly overworked.

Well, we are, and there doesn't appear to be much we can do about it. Employers will continue to generate more and more work because the technology makes it possible. Technology can even help ride heard on quality issues which are sure to rear up in our overloaded state. We can always ask for help, but as Ferris points out, even that takes little time at all, thanks to messaging technologies.

As a result today's knowledge workers work harder, faster and deal with more stress than their predecessors.

Why all the stress? Ferris said it's because computers, for all they can do for us, aren't that good yet at helping us prioritize the things that need immediate attention and things that can wait. We still have to make those decisions ourselves, but we can't afford ourselves the time to do it properly and almost by default, everything needs immediate attention.

In competitive corporate settings, the overload is not viewed as a problem until there is a quality problem. But there will be no throttling back. There's always someone eager to step up if a colleague succumbs to the mounting pressures.

We've talked for years about the information revolution and what it has meant to our business and personal lives. But up till now, we've mostly required our technical innovations to adapt to our wishes and habits. All the new messaging technologies have flipped that relationship. We need to think about that going forward. We're working in post real-time or, more accurately, unreal-time.

Next time you find yourself drumming your fingers while the e-mail server or the network takes a few beats longer than normal to download a reply, go get a cup of coffee, instead. We need to find our own pace in this post real-time environment; one that helps us balance quantity, quality and satisfaction. We used to say that it's better to work smart than work fast. Now that working fast is just assumed, learn to work smart again.

Posted by Mitch Irsfeld at 02:26 PM | Permalink

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