Memo 4/8/97, FYI: Messages Inundate Offices

By Alex Markels

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Greg Hero does it before he showers and while he's getting dressed. Bill Boni does it while he's driving to work. Freada Klein does it on the plane. David Beirne does it after every meeting. Michael Schrage does it all day long.

What these busy professionals do, as often as a dozen times a day, is check their messages: voice and electronic-mail, faxes, overnight packets and, yes, even conventional mail. "It's out of control," says Mr. Hero, a telecommunications consultant who is a vice president of American Management Systems Inc., a Fairfax, Va., consulting company. "And it's getting worse."

Mr. Hero isn't alone in his dismay. The average person sends and receives a total of about 178 messages each day, according to a recent study of 972 workers at large companies. The communications barrage interrupts them three or more times an hour, leaving three quarters of those interviewed for the Institute for the Future/Gallup Organization study feeling overwhelmed.

"It's more than frustration," says Nancy Ozawa, director of strategic planning at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "Critical thinking and analysis get lost in and interrupt-driven workplace."

"Interrupt driven" is a term that was initially applied to personal computers, nearly all of which are programmed to do a job until they are interrupted and then return to the task at hand. But while computers can mindlessly pick up where they leave off, humans often find themselves distracted and unable to concentrate when they return to tasks. "You lose that level of centering and attention because you are very reactive," says Mr. Boni, an information-security expert at Amgen Corp. Who schedules important meetings at nearby hotels to shield himself and his subordinates from interruptions.

The message overload, Mr. Boni says, can lead employees to believe that they are perpetually putting out "all these little fires." He adds" "But if you were taking enough time to be strategic, you might figure out ways to avoid the fires altogether."

Indeed, out of the 70 to 80 electronic messages Mr. Boni typically receives overnight, he usually only responds to four to 10 of them. He uses his cellular phone to check his voice mail while driving to work, and clears his e-mail over his first cup of coffee. "You know it's going to be a bad day when the phone starts ringing and you don't have time to clear the e-mail," he says.

Electronic messages emit a siren song. Their instantaneous nature creates a false sense of urgency, not to mention a convenient excuse for procrastinating workers to set aside what they don't want to do. Meanwhile, advances in technology seem to worsen the problem. For example, the latest e-mail systems not only provide immediate communications, but also let senders know if the message has been received and whether it's been read yet. "They can measure how long it takes you to respond," Mr. Schrage says. "So you feel like you have to respond immediately."

The telephone is easier to ignore. "It used to be that voice mail was the vehicle to answer calls when you're gone or busy, now it's the vehicle that lets you not answer the phone," says Mr. Schrage, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab." And now with caller-ID, you can actually see who it is and choose whether or not to take the call."

Says Mr. Boni "If I'm in the midst of a call, and I see another call coming from a number I recognize, I'll try to get off. I'm sad in a way because that's not really courteous anymore."

The Institute for the Future/Gallup study was sponsored by Pitney Bowes Inc., maker of postage meters and other products. The study found that e-mail isn't replacing older kinds of messages but is "layered over existing methods, increasing the communication message load."

Part of the problem is that many people trust their computer networks even less than they trust the U.S. Postal Service. Or they figure the best way to get through is to send the same message via every method available. "Some people will send me an e-mail, then leave a voice-mail message to tell me that they've sent me an e-mail," says Mr. Schrage, who receives more than 150 messages a day. To cope, he ignores copies of messages sent to a primary addressee. He also has programmed his voice mail so that callers can't leave more than a 30-second message.

Fallout from the message explosion is everywhere. "A plane ride is not longer a time to work quietly or read the trashy novel," says Ms. Klein, president of Klein Associates Inc. A human-resources consultant in Boston, Mass. "It's time to be scheduled and invaded." Not that she'd rather do without the intrusions. My clients rely on being able to get through to me, wherever I am," she says.

Yet some professionals thrive on the interrupt-driven work ethic, even seeing a competitive advantage for those who can master it. "If you can respond immediately, you're in your own league," says Mr. Beirne, an executive recruiter who prides himself on his ability to return every contact. "I dial into voice mail after every meeting because something might have happened in that last hour and a half." Moreover, it is the only way to ward off clogged in-boxes. "There's nothing worse than dialing in to find 30 new voice mails and knowing that each one is two minutes long," he adds.

But his quick responsiveness has wreaked havoc on his personal life. "There is no line between work and home," he admits. "I put my pager next to my bed....I have to."