Tag Archives: Workers

Rethinking Email in the Workplace

By Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever

One of the signature trends of technology in the Internet age has been the reversal of technology adoption flows.

In the past, the copy machine, the fax, the mobile phone (before smartphones), and the personal computer all started as work tools and then moved into the consumer realm. With the Internet, and with smartphones, that trend reversed. Unexpectedly, consumer tools such as chat, e-mail, and social networks were brought into the workplace — not by IT managers, but by employees looking to increase their productivity. This path had been greased by the demands of workers that they be able to use their own smartphones (and, to a lesser degree, laptops and tablets) to conduct work business such as making phone calls and sending e-mails.

So the slot machine in our pockets was tossed into the workplace, with unsurprising results. Our work tools began to more closely resemble our consumer products. Chat tool Slack uses numerous techniques that encourage workers to pay attention to it as much as possible and consume as much as possible. The company’s tagline, after all, is “Where Work Happens.” Translation? Don’t leave Slack; you will miss something and fail at your job. Urging us to turn on desktop notifications, e-mail notifications when someone mentions our name, and shortcuts that allow us to post GIFs in the chat channel, the product designers of Slack have clearly read Nir Eyal’s book, Hooked.

Slack is one of many services engaging businesses and work teams using approaches similar to those of consumer product designers. In fact, most providers of work technologies, from human resources systems to document-sharing systems to systems managing customer relationships, now emphasize some sort of interruptive notifications system to alert us to a new message or some other event. The result is a blizzard of notifications and intense pressure to keep many of those notification systems on because ignoring a notification is likely to mean ignoring something that somebody considers important.

This new reality of notification insanity obstructs our concentration not only as individuals but also when we are together — in the flesh, or in a virtual conference. In a study of 1,200 office employees in 2015, videoconferencing company Highfive found that, on average, 4.73 messages, texts, or e-mails are sent by each person during a normal in-person meeting. Seventy-three percent of millennial respondents acknowledged checking their phones during conference calls, and 45 percent acknowledged checking them during in-person meetings. Ironically, 47 percent of respondents’ biggest problem with meetings was that co-workers were not paying attention.

The Silent Start and Other Ways to Rethink Work

Slowing down interruptions and encouraging more deep work is exceptionally difficult when a multitask ethos is ingrained. To combat multitasking during meetings and try to keep meetings meaningful, Amazon mandates that attendees spend the first part of a meeting reading a printed agenda and additional information that sets the table for the meeting. CEO Jeff Bezos calls it “the silent start.” This is very good meeting hygiene and, according to Bezos, a wonderful way to spark innovation and interesting ideas.

It is really up to organizational leaders, such as Bezos, to give workers and their organizations the safe space in which to be creative and productive and fulfill their potential. We advocate that every company create a cohesive productivity policy. Some companies already are performing in-depth reviews on employee productivity and practices, meeting structures, meeting attendance, how quickly e-mails are answered, how documents are shared — all the minutiae that make up the bulk of our working day and can easily create employment hell.

The policy — or we can call it a performance enhancement plan (PEP) if you need an HR-friendly buzzword — could signify both management’s willingness to allow employees to design their work experiences and the willingness of employees to take ownership for the creation of a healthy environment that promotes productivity, balance, flow, and, as a consequence, work satisfaction.

For example, what if your company had a policy to actively discourage employees from checking and responding to e-mails every five minutes, and instead set up the e-mail servers to batch-receive e-mail messages on the hour or the half-hour? (This is entirely possible and almost trivial to implement.) What if companies had a warning system baked into calendars to alert employees that they are allocating more than 20 percent of their time to meetings, and highlighting transmission and reception of messages on weekends or e-mail threads that extend beyond five round trips? What if the system alerted users who overuse “reply all” in environments that don’t generally need it?

We could, in principle, build a work-satisfaction index — a single number that rates an employee’s state of work fulfillment and a manager’s adherence to these kinds of policies. Using the same tools that increasingly track productivity and monitor what employees do, we could easily make visible the unhealthy practices that lead to so much work frustration and discontentment.

Some companies have ad hoc versions of systems that work by giving employees maximum freedom. Netflix, for example, tells employees to take as much vacation as they want to and as much family leave as they want to, and even to show up at the office when they want to; its only requirement is for employees to be top performers.

Best Buy for a while had a “meetings entirely optional policy” as part of its Results Oriented Work Program. That policy was discontinued in 2013, but many employees and managers felt that it worked extremely well by allowing people to design their work engagements and minimize imposition of time-wasting distractions. The core message of all this should be “Design the work environment you need, and we will back you up and let you deliver. Just be sure to deliver.”

Building such a culture of freedom takes a particularly strong stomach, for CEOs, managers, and employees. It necessitates that all of us take personal responsibility to banish FOMO, to avoid interruptions, and to silence our inner technology demons. So far, we collectively have remained unsure whether such drastic approaches could work over the long haul, because the broader pressures to be always “on” amid job uncertainty are so great.

As employees, we should always ask what the realistic expectations are for our roles and the culture of the company. If that culture goes against our notion of designed freedom of choice and flow, then we should vote with our feet and find work somewhere else. As leaders, executives must begin paying more than lip service to notions of holistic approaches to employee and organizational health.

For the most part, in a white-collar environment, productivity, engagement, and workplace satisfaction are closely related. Productivity is a measure of the output achieved per hour of input. Note that this is a ratio of one to the other, not an absolute. Numerous studies have shown that beyond a certain point, working excessive hours yields rapidly diminishing returns. True, that balance may shift, for instance when we are under looming project deadlines. But, as when we’ve crammed for exams at university, we need a break afterward: time to recharge our energy and our well-being. This too must be baked into the work environment.


Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and Harvard Law School. This post is partly derived from his book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

Paid Family Leave: Workers Pay For It But Rarely Use It

California wage earners welcoming a new child to the family or caring for a seriously ill relative this year can expect increased support from the state’s Paid Family Leave Program.

Eighteen million people in the state pay 1 percent of their wages to the state’s disability program, which helps those who have to take time off for medical matters unrelated to their jobs.

In 2018, the percentage of a worker’s paycheck the state will provide increases from 55 percent to between 60 and 70 percent, up to $1,216 weekly. And the state has done away with the “waiting period” that required people to go without any pay at all for the first week they were out.

“2018 is the year of  better policies for Paid Family Leave, particularly for new parents,” Julia Parish, of Legal Aid at Work, said at a news conference at San Francisco’s Employment Development Department offices on Feb. 1.

The meeting addressed the EDD’s finding that only 36 percent of the Californians it surveyed were even aware of the Paid Family Leave program, and among those who might need it most, immigrants, women and those with lower levels of education, even fewer know it exists.

“Awareness is generally low across the state, especially among minority and low-income communities,” the EDD’s Kacie Finnicum said.

The program is available for new moms and dads, including adoptive and foster parents, and each parent is eligible for up to six weeks per year each. The time they take off to care for and bond with their children can be spread across the calendar however they see fit.

Those six weeks can also be used to care for seriously ill family members, including grandparents, in-laws, domestic partners and siblings.

Advocates urged applicants to plan their time off with their supervisor, as the job protection dimensions of the Paid Family Leave program are more limited. But here, too, the rules have been relaxed this year. For instance, although small businesses have been exempt from having to honor the Paid Family Leave regulations, what constitutes a small business in such a scenario has changed, from up to 50 employees to 20.

If the applicant lives and works in San Francisco, there’s a new rule in place whereby the employer is to make up the difference between what the state pays and the worker’s usual compensation, Parish said.

The speakers also cited findings that workplace efficiency and morale benefit from the program. A temporary accommodation is less expensive than replacing a worker.

Parish described some of the ancillary benefits of the program: It promotes gender equity, she said, by including both partners in the childcare process from an early stage.  By encouraging bonding between the children and the father figure, paid family leave strengthens the foundations of those relationships going forward.

The program requires that the parents apply for it within the first year of the new child’s arrival, whether it’s newborn, adopted or fostered.

Parish was followed by Julia Frudden, of the Child Care Law Center; both cited studies showing that new mothers given the freedom to attend to their children with a brief respite from work responsibilities breastfeed their children twice as long.

Frudden also said that infant mortality drops by 10 percent, there’s a decrease in post-partum depression and better attention to preventive care such as screenings.

Children who have the advantage of more time spent with their parents at home also develop stronger immune systems, she said, which helps them thrive in childcare situations once their parents have returned to work.

Since becoming the first state in the country with such a program, in 2002, California has fielded 2.8 million claims and paid out $5 billion in benefits, Finnicum said.

She and Parish both spoke of their own motherhood experiences and what having paid leave  had meant to them.

“It was a huge relief to be able to have financial support,” Finnicum said. “It was a big weight off our shoulders.”

Although the program is applicable even to those whose needs to care for a family member requires them to leave the country, a person’s immigration status is not factored into the application process, Finnicum said. The only limit on eligibility is that they must be participating in the State Disability Insurance program via automatic deductions from their paychecks or, if independent contractors, through a voluntary plan.

For more information on the program or to apply, visit the web site edd.ca.gov/SDI_Online. Applications can also be made by mail; the form to submit is available at edd.ca.gov/Forms.