Social Media at Work: Turn on, tune in, or drop out?

Last month in a post about working in The Zone I noted how the multitude of distractions on a typical computer screen can impact our ability to focus. This seems particularly so for tasks like programming that require high concentration.

But many working environments expect programmers – and other staff – to respond quickly at any time to email, IM, phone calls and more.  I am reminded of my recurring experience in one company.  I would receive phone calls or message along the lines of this.

“I sent you an email 5 minutes ago and you haven’t responded.  What’s up?”

What I would think… “if I checked every email instantly then I’d get barely any work done.”

What I would actually say… usually something diplomatic.

So I when a relevant article on attentive disruption arrived I had to delve further.

Research on Multitasking

Examining the Affects of Student Multitasking With Laptops During the Lecture” has three key findings.  (I could only find a link to the abstract and not the full piece.)

  • Students engage in substantial multitasking behavior with their laptops and have non course-related software applications open and active about 42% of the time.
  • There is a statistically significant inverse relationship between the ratio of distractive versus productive multitasking behavior during lectures and academic performance.
  • We also observe that students under state the frequency of email and instant messaging (IM) use in the classroom when self-reporting on their laptop usage.

Sounds like a lot of offices … and many programmer desktops.  Let’s explore.  (I have email, Skype and Trillian live as I write this but fortunately few messages today.)

Social Media Manipulates

The explosion of social media in such a short period is a testament to its appeal.  Facebook, IM, Twitter and the plethora of other communication platforms are engineered to entice users.  They are engineered for omnipresence. They are designed to increase usage and return rates.  For many users they create anxiety that they will miss out on something if they don’t pay constant attention.

That’s not a criticism, it is simply that their attractiveness is core to their success.

Put in Darwinian terms, if people didn’t return regularly to Facebook and its ilk then they wouldn’t be the phenomenon they have become.

For example, Australian politicians recently discussed an urgent need to allow them to turn off the red flashing light that indicates message arrival.  “Death by BlackBerry crisis averted“, said the newspapers. While there is a legitimate problem with flashing lights when driving a car at night (the proximate complaint) the broader discussion cited how difficult they found it to ignore that flashing red light – a siren call to check your messages that is hard to resist.

With BlackBerries, iPhone, Android and the like through-out the corridors of powers I do wonder about the long-term impact.

Research on Productivity

So I looked around for further research on these communication tools and productivity.  It’s complex, it’s contextual, it’s not black and white.

There’s plenty of supporting data for the positive transformative effect that the IT revolution has had on the modern workplace.  It’s hard to imagine the economy working without the internet, email, web sites, e-commerce and the communications platforms from Skype to Facebook and more.

But can we have too much of a good thing?  At what point does the benefit peak and the downsides grow?  And does it matter to programmers?

Breaking Bad Habits: The Negative Effect of Email and Instant Messaging on the Workplace reports on email responsiveness in an office environment.  The average time to act on a new email arrival was 1 minute 44 second, but 70% of users reacted within only 6 seconds!  The researchers found that it took 64 seconds to recover from the email disruption and return to prior productivity. For IM, they found that user reaction times were even shorter than 6 seconds.

A quick calculation finds that just over 50 email interruptions in a day would equal an hour of greatly reduced effectiveness.

If you are engrossed in a complex programming task I think it is pretty reasonable to expect that recovery time would be greater than for typical work tasks.  The caveman instinct seems an entirely reasonable response.

The Bad Habits article continues on to offer suggestions on mitigating the effect — mostly common sense.  But if you work in an environment conditioned for real-time responses it can take a team commitment to make common sense acceptable.  I’ve added some good ideas I’ve heard over recent years.

  • Reduce the prominence of interruptions.  Turn off real-time email alerts, pop-ups and sounds.
  • Expect people to check email only every hour or two.  If possible, set up email to check for new messages less often; ideally only when you click “Send / Receive”.
  • Not all email is equally important.  Filter messages to separate “To: you”, “Cc: you” and mailing lists.
  • Put your mobile on silent or turn it off.

The same principles apply to IM and social media.

  • If you can, turn it off for extended periods or set status as “Away” or “In The Zone” or “Hiding in Cave” or whatever works for you.
  • OTP (on the phone) is a pretty good way of saying I can’t chat now.  How about “ITZ” (in the zone)?

Perfect for Procrastination

Let’s be real, all these comms tools are the perfect distraction for procrastination.  Let’s say I’m sitting at my desk stuck trying to fix today’s bug.  I’ll just spend a couple of minutes reading a blog… then follow an interesting link… then catch up news on Facebook… then there’s a critical email thread on fixing the coffee machine that I must contribute to… OMG, it’s 4 o’clock already and I need to fix that bug!

To mis-quote Timothy Leary, a counterculture icon of the 1960s, consider your choice for the use of communication distractions on your desktop…

Will you turn on, tune in or drop out?


Andrew H. – Psygrammer


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