Unified communications is supposed to give companies the opportunity to work faster and more flexibly, but without proper management, employees can find themselves fighting to free themselves from the technology.
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In response to workers feeling constantly interrupted and unable to find "quiet time," some companies (Intel, for instance) have taken extreme steps and begun instituting "communication free" times where email, IM and even phones are turned off.
Many of the engineers are happy about the newfound thinking time," blogged Nathan Zeldes, an Intel engineer who helped helm the project wrote in a blog post. "And [they] are protecting it by pushing back on interrupters during the Tuesday a.m. slot."
As unified communications makes it easier for workers to contact one another, are they destined to be buried by all the so-called productivity gains, losing both family time and concentration as they are constantly pinged?
"I think unified communications is going to compound this problem," said Sara Radicati, president of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Radicati Group. "But the problem is not with the technology, it's that the whole style of working is changing, the whole relationship between employer and employee is changing."
Radicati said the problem is particularly acute in the U.S., where long work hours and loads of email are something of a status symbol. "Anyone in a professional field is expected not to have any work hours anymore," she said. "You come out of the shower and you check your BlackBerry."
Even some of unified communications' biggest proponents acknowledge the pitfalls.
"You can see how the problem has started to fester: IDC says there will be a billion mobile workers by 2011," said Diane Shariff, director of end-user experience for Avaya. "People can't handle all the volume. Hyper-connectivity has gone so far that it hampers productivity in some cases."
Shariff said, however, that the answer isn't company-wide communications "blackouts" but better user control and training of employees to set boundaries of when they can and can't be interrupted. She said unified communications gives employees the ability to control all communications simultaneously, while presence gives colleagues more information about why workers are not available and when they will be back.
"You need to understand the capability, and you need to help the users walk through it," she said.
Radicati also said that properly managing the technology and the workplace was the best way to unlock unified communications' opportunity.
"You have to teach people a little bit of the basics on time management," she said. "The reason people are harassed by their communications devices is [that] they are required to be in meetings 9 to 5. If your normal work time is swallowed by meetings, then, yes, you are struggling because between meetings, phone calls and email, you don't have any quiet time to work."
It is ultimately a management problem, Radicati said, not a technology one.
Alan Elliot, vice president of sales at messaging management company Mirapoint, said many companies need to better define employee expectations and teach employees how to place limits on their technology.
"My BlackBerry, for example, doesn't pull any more [emails or voicemail] after a certain time in the day," Elliot said. "At 6 p.m., that office phone should forward [to voicemail], and only your personal line should ring through."
In reality, he said, employees were no more contactable than they have ever been: Bosses have always had personal numbers for emergencies, for example.
But the difference is that managers thought long and hard before calling a home number after 8 p.m., while few would now hesitate to call a company-provided cell phone.
A first step toward getting back that time is simply to turn off the phone, Elliot said.
"The expectation of after-hours time is many companies' policy, but I think HR should take a look at how email, instant messaging and the like should be reined in," he said. "It's 40 hours. That's what we pay for. Anybody who bleeds over that should tread lightly."