Friday, December 18, 2009

The Five Times When You Need to Go Offline

Yesterday's Blackberry outage was a real panic for some professionals, who have grown to depend on their PDAs as an extension of themselves. But in my opinion these glitches are useful reminders of how much business and life have really changed in the past 10-15 years.

I still remember the boom-boom high tech '90s, when many of my clients were excited by the idea of transforming the way people do business, share, and communicate. Songs like Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now" were co-opted by companies like AT&T to express the revolution that was going on. But the classic bit of '90s optimism and foresight was AT&T's 1993 "You Will" campaign:

So here we are in 2009. I'm blogging at you using a late '90s medium, but you may be reading this on a hand-held device in an elevator, a netbook in a coffee shop, on your HD TV, or a laptop on the bus. You can comment on it, share it, even subscribe to it (hint, hint) so you get notified the second I hit "publish post". Awesome, isn't it?

Isn't it?

I love the convenience of our current communication technology. Don't get me wrong. But new opportunities to collaborate and connect have their downsides too. So allow me to present...

The five times when you need to go offline:

1) When multitasking gets just plain rude

I run a lot of meetings, but I hate meetings as much as everyone else. I want them to be organized, focussed, and productive. But somehow, we have allowed it to be okay for people to read e-mails, text message, and instant message while other people are talking. What the hell?

Whether you're a client or a colleague, I can't pretend that I'm not annoyed by this kind of behaviour. I wish that we could post a sign in our boardroom saying "one conversation at a time, please". While you may think you're being efficient by splitting your attention in the meeting to get other things done, it actually slows down everyone else because you are not keeping up. Stop it please. It's as rude as taking a phone call mid-meeting.

2) When project management turns into buck-passing

One of the other problems with our ubiquitous access to e-mail is the temptation to do everything on that medium. In an ordinary conversation, people have to think about what they're saying. But when you receive an e-mail with a problem, it's easier to forward it to someone else to interpret and resolve than to actually participate intellectually in the resolution. Bad.

3) When you end up making a mountain out of an e-mail trail

Many people suck at expressing themselves in writing. e-mail is especially bad because it lacks nuance or the context of tone or body language. It's not an emotive medium, and yet people make the mistake of committing emotions to the permanent record by ranting and raving via e-mail. Big mistake. Especially if many CCs are involved. You may want to "take it back", but it's out there forever.

4) When you contribute to the death of prose

I'm old enough to have had pen pals. I loved writing letters. That probably helped me develop as a writer.

I'm not one of these people who thinks that texting and online jargon are killing the English language. It has to evolve to serve the needs of the day. But what I do find is that fewer and fewer people coming out of university have the ability to organize their thoughts in a format of more than 50 words.

When I put out an open call for entry-level Copywriters a couple of years ago, I insisted on them writing me an original cover letter. The ones I interviewed had to write a 700-word advertorial as a test. I found my worthy candidates, but I also found that many others who wanted to write for a living were incapable of structuring their thoughts, even in an e-mail. Add to that some truly pathetic spelling, grammar, and general sloppiness. Won't someone please think of the next generation of writers?

I agree that e-mail should be written differently than traditional business correspondence. But I also believe that it takes more thought to compose a concise message than a long-winded one. The smaller the screens (and the shorter the attention spans) that your readers have, the more you need to polish your writing style. This, sadly, is not happening. Even among my generation and older.

5) When work follows you everywhere

Everyone needs a break from being on-call. I know. When I was a kid, my uncle was a family doctor. Being accessible all the time can easily burn you out.

And yet people are afraid to disconnect from their work and social networks, even for eating, sleeping and having personal time. This just isn't right.

Because business is competitive, both client and agency people want to outdo each other in being available and responsive. If you don't answer this e-mail or take this call, right freaking NOW, then someone else will. Right?

Call me naive, but I think we need to change this situation. In my line of work, few crises are as immediate as people sometimes make them out to be. It's just that the opportunity for instant communication has created an expectation of immediate action — even on things that could easily have waited until tomorrow to address.

To me, the obsession with connectivity is a combination of novelty, inflated self-importance, and fear. We need to get over all three.

Anyway, if you'd like to comment on this blog, please do so below. I'll respond when I get around to it.


  1. "In my line of work, few crises are as immediate as people sometimes make them out to be."

    Amen to that.

  2. Good posting, Tom. I agree 100% with everything you said. I go out of my way, a lot of times, to be inaccesible. I even make it clear to my employers that when I'm not a work, I'M NOT AT WORK. In other words, leave me the hell alone.

    It seems exceedingly strange, given that I love technology and make my living as a web apps developer, yet I am apparently, upon a little self analysis, a complete luddite when it comes to using technology to communicate. Perhaps this wireless age has simply revealed the fact that I'm really a just curmudgeon.

  3. Good thoughts, Tom - on issues we have been discussing at Presbytery.