Electronic communication

Time for new approaches

Criticism of electronic communication is growing – when used inap-propriately it impairs efficiency, productivity and ultimately the user’s health. Experts are now demanding new approaches.

Hansjörg Honegger

Constantly online, working when and where you want, access to all the data you need anywhere on the planet. Combined with more computing power than ever before, IT networks and highly automated procedures, this should be a huge boost for the productivity of the world economy. “Should” being the key word here; mostly just the reverse is true. In the history of the modern economic era, productivity has never risen as slowly as it has in the last five years. Experts are still mulling over the reasons for this. However one suspect has been singled out – the way we use modern means of communications.


The assumption is that the biological boundaries of humans have now been reached with the nearly unlimited possibilities of new communications technology. We aren’t capable of multitasking. We do our best work when we are able to concentrate solely on one task for a long period. We respond instinctively to certain stimuli. All this means that we are working in a less concentrated, efficient and sustainable manner that we were 20 years ago. Specialists are now calling for a new communications culture in which major corporations should take the lead.


Alexander Markowetz from the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Bonn conducted a far-reaching study of how people use their mobile phones in 2015. The results showed that we look at our smartphones every 18 minutes on average, with some users looking at their devices more than twice as frequently. Behavioural scientists looked for an explanation for this pattern in neurobiology. A quick glance at your smartphone releases the happiness hormone dopamine – even if there’s nothing to see, the expectation of receiving an e-mail, a text message or interesting news is sufficient to trigger this. Allowing yourself these quick dopamine bursts can quickly become a habit.


However, this habit conflicts with another particular biological human feature – we work best when we can concentrate on one topic for at least 15 minutes without distractions. This allows thoughts to flow and the brain can function to its fullest capacity. If we are interrupted every 18 minutes, we have to build up the flow from the start again. We can no longer work to our best because we are distracted too often.

We work best when we can concentrate on one topic for at least 15 minutes without distractions.

E-mail also plays a part in this communications overload. An American study found that top managers receive around 30,000 e-mails that they are supposed to read annually. 80 e-mails a day means being disturbed 80 times a day. And these interruptions cost money. Analysts at the New York technology company Basex spent 18 months examining the working practices of knowledge workers and top managers in major corporations for their study “The Cost of Not Paying Attention”. People who earn their pay with their intellectual capacities lose around 28 percent of their daily working time due to interruptions. This costs the US economy alone 55 billion dollars each year.


Study director Alexander Markowetz suspects that this flood of e-mails is due to “digital presenteeism” – particularly in large companies. Employees are increasingly involved in different projects with changing project teams and feel under pressure to let their presence be felt and the easiest way to do this is via e-mail. Copying as many people as possible into e-mails or forwarding unimportant information is a simple way of making sure your name is seen.


Markowetz says that the results of his research (which has been backed up by numerous studies all over the world) require us to take a new approach to communications etiquette. He regards this as being particularly vital in big companies where it could affect a great many people.


Many companies are very much aware of this problem. At Swisscom, for instance, there are very clear rules for using digital communications media. Employees are given the message that they do not have to be available for contact outside working hours. A small survey of major Swiss companies has shown that this rule is widespread. The radical restrictions that are in place in some cases abroad such as shutting down the mail server over the weekend or automatically deleting e-mails that arrive during holidays are rarely enforced in Switzerland. Swiss corporations rely on their employees to take responsibility for themselves and use their common sense.

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“What is missing here is a generally accepted standard of behaviour – a consensus on when e-mails and mobile phones are a suitable means of communication.”

Alexander Markowetz, Friedrich Wilhelm University in Bonn

Markowetz also does not view prohibitions or technical restrictions as a solution to the problem. “Especially in companies that are active internationally, you can’t ban employees from checking their e-mails early in the morning or late in the evening.” Imposing strict working times is just as ineffectual: “Different people work best at very different times.” What is missing here is a generally accepted standard of behaviour – a consensus on when e-mails and mobile phones are a suitable means of communication and when not. Sending unnecessary e-mails would have to become regarded as rude and then be frowned upon in society.


Markowetz thinks a suitable approach might be found in the Eisenhower principle, named after the former US President: If it’s important and urgent, pick up the phone. It it’s important but not urgent, send it by e-mail to the corresponding person (and not to half the company). If it’s not important and not urgent, mention it during the next tea break. Changing communication culture will be a very long process. As Markowetz says: “It also took us years to get used to not smoking in restaurants and bars.”

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