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Emails and Productivity

Productivity growth in the Western world economy seems to have slowed to a trickle. There are many possible explanations of this - globalisation (see my forthcoming MM piece on this), mass immigration driving wages down and discouraging investment in productivity-enhancing technologies, low interest rates keeping low-productivity 'zombie' companies in business, and the reluctance of banks to lend to companies wishing to invest.

Another reason often given is that the efficiency enhancements of the internet have now been and gone and there are no new technologies that are offering significant producivity gains. Being an office worker I have some sympathy with this argument. Everyday we get bombarded with emails giving us updates on who is doing what and it is simply not possible to engage with every communication received. I often wonder how things got done in offices before, but perhaps it was simply the case that people got on with their jobs and were exposed to less information about other people's jobs and the state of the organisation as a whole. Use of telephones was greater. Emails have the advantage that questions can be asked of people without them having to respond straightaway, but it also has the consequence of making it is easier to ask people questions in the first place - and as a result everyone ends up asking more questions.

Likewise in meetings; in the past, planning a meeting involving several people was time-consuming. With email systems today it is far easier to arrange a meeting, but instead of it reducing the time taken to arrange meetings so people can spend more time on productive activities, it just seems to result in people having more meetings.

The way forward is to have a proper audit of time taken in meetings, the efficacy and value of them, and exactly how much information people need to be exposed to that isn't directly relevant to them. Technology can make office work more efficient but only if it is used wisely. Technology frequently offers great promise as being 'labour-saving' but when applied to the real world it often just ends up making things more complicated.