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Published: November 27, 2012
 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69

 
 

The Offline Executive

A manager’s effectiveness depends not only on using e-mail and other electronic communication, but also on learning to shut it down.

Do you ever disconnect, even for just a few minutes? Think about the last time you used your “off button.” Was it at home over the weekend? On vacation? Or were you at the office? BlackBerrys, iPhones, Androids, iPads, and all their digital relatives are transforming our lives — for better and for worse. They are also changing the nature of how and when (and where) work gets done.

This new reality has profound implications for management, although studies on the topic have been surprisingly limited. We know that managers at all levels spend at least half their time collecting, receiving, and disseminating information. New technologies have extended the speed and breadth of this communication across vast distances. Yet studies going back a half century and more (long before e-mail) have made it clear that managing is characterized by high levels of variety, brevity, fragmentation, and, perhaps most significantly, interruption. Often to managers’ detriment, their attention is frequently diverted from one activity to another in their attempts to reconcile conflicting demands. The first of these studies, carried out by Sune Carlson and involving managing directors in Sweden in the late 1940s ― when the first computer was developed ― found that managers were inundated with reports. If they only knew what was to come.

Mobile computing seems to help managers cope with these distractions effectively. Smartphones, for instance, allow them to attend to the variety of demands on their time and leverage brief moments between interruptions to complete minor tasks. But new technologies can also have unintended negative and harassing effects; managers need to understand the dangers of an overreliance on electronic communication.

Missing the Meaning

Managing is not a science; it is a subtle and nuanced practice, learned mostly on the job, through paying close attention to gestures and tone of voice. This “soft information” is an integral part of managing, and is gathered by talking and listening in meetings, during chance encounters, or on the phone. Using only words ― sending a text message or an e-mail ― takes away the nuance that comes from seeing and hearing people, from exchanging points of view and working toward agreements. Information technology can and should expand your range of communication, but cannot be a substitute for interactions that build trust, share vision, and enhance community.

Indeed, managers who are in touch only through their keyboard are out of touch with the vast world beyond it. They risk substituting breadth for depth. Recent research shows that we may have more connections today, but fewer relationships. Facebook and LinkedIn can complement but not replace the personal interactions at the heart of managing effectively. Managers who believe that they can learn about their department through e-mail — rarely walking down the hall, let alone getting on an airplane — may find themselves in trouble. They’ll gather the facts, but they may miss the meaning. And the increasing use of 140-character tweets to convey impressions of an organization or a person will likely result in an even greater loss of nuance.

New technologies can also aggravate the hectic pace and distraction inherent in managerial work, sometimes causing managers to behave unreasonably. For example, a manager may send a text message at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday to announce a meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Monday. Or a manager might follow up on a request for information sent by e-mail after waiting only an hour for a response. These more and more commonly accepted practices disrupt work–life balance, interrupt one’s ability to focus, and erode cognitive capabilities. The more often someone feels compelled to check their e-mail or phone, the harder it is to focus on the task at hand.

 
 
 
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