Is Technology Still Our Friend?

Several years ago, I wrote an article expounding on the great things that new technologies were allowing us to do. I was so enamored with the new gadgets I had at my disposal that I generally overlooked the possible downside to these toys. Sorry about that. The oversight was my mistake; please allow me to take corrective action.

Don’t get me wrong; I embrace nearly all new technologies but not as quickly as I did a few years ago. There are fantastic new devices that allow us to speak through our cell phones to a wireless ear bud; there are units that receive e-mails automatically and allow us to receive and send e-mail in real time; and we even have wireless networks in our coffee shops to allow us to stay connected while we are out and about.

As leaders, we can get very excited over the ability of an employee to receive an important phone call or even an e-mail while out in the field. How about the time saved by having our maintenance technicians carry handheld computers to receive all their work orders? Knowing your team is nearly paperless, they can automatically process work orders in the field. When they come back to the office, the work control coordinators don’t need to enter the data from the completed work orders; a simple sync and the data entry is done, and the new work orders are automatically entered into the workers’ handhelds. You’ve got to love an efficient system!

It is how we use these new technologies that defines who we are and how efficient we want to (or think we can) be. If we have a customer in our office to deliver a work request, we should not answer the phone if it rings. It sends the message that the person on the other end of the phone is more important than the person we have in front of us. In the same vein, I am likely to allow a cell phone call to go to voicemail if I am involved in a conversation or attending a meeting. By interacting with someone in person, I am committing myself to giving my full attention to the person or people I am with. Electronic diversions and distractions can only take away from the end result. Many of us take pride in our ability to multi-task, but how much do we really gain from a meeting in which we also read e-mail on our Blackberry?

The benefits of increased productivity aside, I continually keep an eye on the ever-blurring line between personal and professional time. I watch palm-top computing with e-mail capabilities intertwine into people’s personal time. I make and take more phone calls during my commute than ever before. In the past, my commute was time to regroup, structure my thoughts or sometimes simply allow my mind to recharge. Now, I spend much of that time working, making business decisions. My commute is now time“on the clock.” At first I thought it was cool to be able to take a phone call while in the car or standing in line at the local fast food joint, but now I bristle when I see (and hear) other people’s conversations while I’m trying to get a hamburger! I am not saying not to use your cell phone, only that it should be used in such a manner as to not offend others.

Finally, when we are at home playing with the kids, what message do we send to our family when we stop to answer our phones or check e-mail? I haven’t asked my family, but I suspect they feel the same way as the customer standing at your service counter when you answer the phone in favor of speaking with him. I have observed people in their cars during school pickup (the few times I am able to perform this task), and I see parents deeply engrossed in cell phone conversations while their children sit stoically in the car. Have we lost the art of face-to-face communication? I know my children would rather tell me about their day than listen to whatever business I am attending to.

I am not here to sling stones. I am guilty of each of these items, and this article will likely be a form of therapy to encourage me to be more accountable to my personal and professional time. Use technological tools to their fullest extent, but beware of extending the electronic leash any further than necessary.


Michael G. Steger is director of Physical Plant Services for National Management Resources Corp. at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached at mike_steger@pba.edu.

About the Author

Michael G. Steger is director, Physical Plant, for Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, FL. He can be reached at Stegemik@berkeleyprep.org.

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