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Making Technology Improve Work, Not Create Distraction

The capabilities of the devices the average employee brings to the workplace these days are amazing. At any given moment, every one of your employees probably has the ability to make a phone call from anywhere in the building, record a conversation, and take pictures of your most sensitive work secrets — and that’s just using a cell phone that’s probably already a year old.

On a day-to-day basis, though, you probably aren’t dealing with industrial espionage involving your employees’ cell phones. Nevertheless, you may be dealing with some thorny technology issues. Questions about when and how to use both personal and work-owned technology can become hugely divisive as people from several generations try to communicate and make their different ideas about productivity and office collegiality mesh. Here are just a few ways technology can become an issue in the office.

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Once upon a time, if an employee wanted to listen to music, he had to have a radio at his desk. That meant playing music loud enough that others could hear it, and generally, that was discouraged. Now, though, many people carry iPods wherever they go, and they can play music without disturbing others. Or can they?

To some workers, music is a balm that gets them through the day, and it’s actually necessary to help them work more productively. To others, a coworker’s headphones are the same as a sign that says, “Leave me alone,” or, “I don’t care if you want to talk to me about something, go away.” To bridge that divide, you need to make sure everyone understands when and how it’s appropriate to listen to music in the office.

While there’s no one solution, you might decide to allow employees to listen to their iPods while they’re in their own workspace, but not in more public areas. That way, they can choose to listen to their music when they’re working on their own, but if they’re supposed to be interacting with other employees or with the public, they won’t appear to be isolating themselves.

Cell phones
Everyone’s got one now, from CEOs to preschoolers. So how do you control cell phones so that people aren’t spending all their time gabbing with their friends? When you tell your employees that they should limit personal calls at work, make sure they know you don’t mean just the calls coming in over your office landlines. Other reasonable rules might be in order, too — like setting phones to silent or vibrate so people aren’t hearing crazy ring tones all around them during the day and prohibiting the use of camera or other recording devices in the office.

Have you ever received an e-mail from someone and thought it was completely out of character — that the sender never would have said or written whatever was in the e-mail if it was any other medium? You’re not alone. People show a remarkable inability to filter their thoughts in e-mail, and that carries into what they send while in the office. Racy photos, inappropriate jokes, and communications laced with obscenities are just a few examples.

Remember, e-mail is very dangerous. Not only do people feel freer when they’re using it, but it also never really goes away. E-mail lingers in your backup system or gets forwarded to who knows where. Remind your employees that e-mail is just like any other form of communication in the office — they’re representing the business, and they need to do it professionally.

Basic Training for Supervisors – easy-to-read training guides, including electronic issues in the workplace

Surfing the Internet
So, what exactly are your employees doing when they’re huddled in front of the computer all day? Working? Yes, but probably not all the time. The number of hours of productivity lost to the Internet in any given workplace probably is astounding. Think about it — a constant stream of distraction, available anytime, right there in your employees’ workspaces: shopping, YouTube, personal e-mail accounts . . . you name it. And that doesn’t even touch on all of the inappropriate content folks can look at or download.

Some workplaces resort to programs that screen out certain categories of websites or keystroke monitoring so they know exactly what their employees are doing at any given time. Of course, that can lead to rebellion against Big Brother by your employees. There’s no easy answer to this one, except to work carefully toward a balance that will let your employees feel they’re being treated like adults while enforcing your right to demand a certain level of focus and productivity in the office.

What’s on your hard drive?
Despite all the warnings in the world, many people treat their office computer as though it’s there for their personal use. They store personal files on your server or, at the very least, on the hard drives of their computers. Make sure your employees know that you’ve got the right to access everything they’re storing — even things they’re storing on their hard drives. You may also want to instruct your technology guru to look for certain things — like pornography — and delete it without warning if he finds it.

Audit your company’s Internet and e-mail policies with the Employment Practices Self-Audit Workbook

Bottom line
There’s no one way to deal with the issues technology brings to your workplace, but it’s clear the issues are there, and they show no sign of going away anytime soon. You need to stay aware of current technology and be ready to adapt as necessary in your office.