Imagine it’s 1980. You’re fresh out of college, degree in hand, and you’re looking for that great first job that will launch you into the business world. Imagine you find a company that needs someone with exactly your skills – or near enough – and you secure an interview. Everything seems to be going beautifully. You’ve answered the “tell me about yourself” question with a charming, amusing and yes, slightly moving anecdote about your life. You’ve indicated that your greatest flaw is that you “care too much about doing a good job” and they seem to buy it, and you’re just about ready to deliver your carefully crafted, spontaneous speech about how you’ve always admired the mission of the place, yadda, yadda. (And if you don’t recognize the “yadda, yadda” reference, you may be too young for this post.)
Imagine the person interviewing you sums up your typical work day as follows:
“Okay! We’d be delighted to have you join our company. Let me tell you a little about what to expect.
You start every day with about 37 notes stacked up on your desk that need your attention right away. They are usually from people who stop by your office overnight. They’re pretty sure you’re not there and can’t really help them until the next day, but since it felt convenient for them, they thought they’d reach out to you regardless of your availability. Then, throughout the day, you can expect no fewer than perhaps 159 interruptions – give or take a few dozen - from scores of people, who poke their head into your office or cubicle and ask for your help. Sometimes the interruptions will be substantive and require a lot of your time to fully address. Sometimes they may be from someone who needs one specific piece of information you have. Like a phone number. Or a document. Or a spreadsheet. Or a calculation. Or a contract. Or an opinion. Right now.
Sometimes, but not often, these people will be connected and have similar requests, or build on the previous request. Sometimes, what starts as one request from one person becomes much more complicated when they leave, but then come back again, dragging along one person, then another, then another – all of whom have a bit of insight to share, even if it’s worthless insight - until you have about nineteen people stacked up, all waiting for your response about one topic.
But just as often, people who reach out to you will be entirely disconnected. That means you have to stop what you’re doing, and instead think about what they want and how you can accommodate them, and then go back to what you were trying to do before the last interruption. Except actually - you can’t, because they’ll be another person at your door in about 78 seconds.
One more thing: not everyone who needs you will find you by poking their head in your door. Some of them will come in through the window. Or the skylight. Or another entrance you may know almost nothing about. Some of them will stop by and discover that you’re busy; so they’ll ask you to contact them when you have a moment.
Oh, and don’t worry. You’ll do a lot more than simply answer the questions or requests you get from colleagues. You’ll participate in meetings, and be on the phone daily. You’ll have tasks that are entirely your own responsibility to complete, presentations to write, meetings to arrange, and goals we expect you will reach. You’ll sometimes be out of the office on business for a day or more.
But this is a constant: people will continue to need you throughout the workday (and beyond), even while you’re otherwise occupied or away. They’ll just stack up outside your door, waiting for you to return and help them out.
Sound good? When can you start?”
Question: How quickly would you run?
Imagine it’s 2012.
If you’re in an office environment, you have not only accepted that job offer; it feels normal to you. We live in that work environment every day. But instead of people lined up outside our offices, the emails they send are stacked up in our in boxes and interrupt us on a regular basis, around the clock. And if they’re not emailing, they’re leaving us voice mail. And if they’re not emailing or leaving us voice mail, they’re sending a text. And if they’re not emailing or leaving voice mail or sending a text, they’re skyping us. And everything is a priority; everything needs our attention.
Maybe it’s an age thing – like so much of my life. If the previous job description has been your only experience in the workforce, it could be of little consequence. But maybe for people like me, who did go on those job interviews in 1980, we have one foot in an office environment that’s almost like ‘Madmen,’ without the Old-Fashions, and another dangling in cyberspace, which is not an entirely comfortable position to maintain.
Several exhaustive studies have been conducted that prove the ineffectiveness of all this wired communication – particularly email - and its impact on our productivity. Obviously, there is a point of diminishing return on this time-saving and ostensibly efficient communication. Now, I’m not advocating we stand by the fax machine (remember those?) for critical correspondence or circulate important information on memos via interoffice envelopes but isn’t there a middle ground here? When I started in the workforce, we had a few “while you were out” slips on our desks when we returned from lunch, left there by administrative assistants who picked up our calls.
Now we’re never out, we don’t have admins or (often) lunch. We’ve come a long way, baby.