Texting and Productivity: How tech hampers the connected experience.

There’s no question that texting and other social digital media are making inroads in business. But is texting an actual productivity enhancer as some claim it to be, or a distraction that takes away from the connected experience vital to real work?

The consumer-style texting apps vying for a toehold in business include WhatsAppTextSecureWickrVibr and Text Me, among others. These applications often allow voice and video calling, too. In the case of Wickr and TextSecure, they also allow higher levels of privacy to ease the worries of corporate IT pros. Wickr even offers a Snapchat-like level of privacy, where texts automatically disappear after a predetermined period of time.

Supporters of texting at work say it enables more immediate responses to routine or emergency questions. Detractors find just the opposite – if every message can be delivered immediately, even mundane things may seem like a priority, shifting attention from the job at hand. That shifting of attention and the sometimes compulsive need to check texts and emails has had a name for almost 10 years now – “infomania.”

Even that far back, infomania was found to affect the cognitive ability of workers, actually negatively affecting productivity. Infomania was quantified in a 2005 study commissioned by Hewlett Packard and conducted by British psychologist Dr. Glenn Wilson. His research concluded that 62% of UK adults were addicted to checking messages out of office hours and on vacation.

Half of workers responded to emails immediately or within 60 minutes, and one in five would interrupt a business or social meeting to respond to an email or telephone message. Actually, for business, that sounds pretty good so far. Here’s the catch: Rather than boosting productivity by shifting attention from meetings and tasks to read and respond to messages, these Infomaniacs saw a measurable drop in their IQ.

Wilson’s tests of the average work showed that functioning IQ fell ten points when dealing with these distractions. Subsequent papers claimed that this kind of drop in IQ is more than double that of having recently smoked marijuana, and similar to having missed an entire night’s sleep. The effects were more pronounced with men in the study than women. (This either anecdotally supports the theory that women are better at multitasking than men, or that women may just function better than men in general when they’re stoned or sleepy. Either way, it’s probably not the best way for a company to run.)

So texting and other interruptions to the business day may not be the productivity booster that application developers claim them to be. But one of the latest consumer texting applications has even less of a foot in the door. In early December, Fundamental Applications announce a texting application aimed at Millennials. Dubbed Serum, it’s a mobile chat application that lets users post questions and have text conversations with their friends anonymously.

Fundamental’s Director, Julian Ing, said that Serum’s audience can solicit and receive honest, truthful opinions by smartphone. Examples of how Serum works (in Ing’s opinion, not mine) includes polling friends about their actual opinion as to how a woman might look in a dress, or whether someone’s friends think her boyfriend is cheating. That’s a pretty sexist value proposition, and I’m not sure it’s very compelling. And let’s also acknowledge that this application is aimed at consumers.

On the other hand, the current trend among consumer-focused applications is to build valuation by reaching into business. Facebook and Twitter have been aggressively pursuing business users. Facebook in particular provides a collaborative environment in private groups to share documents and create conversations around multiple projects. Also, given that Serum is aimed at the Millennial market, which in 10 years will represent the majority of mobile workers, it’s not unreasonable to assume that in a few years, if successful, Serum will start to position itself as a way to crowdsource opinion in business. That’s failure waiting to happen, unless they radically change their value proposition.

Currently billed as an opportunity for your peers to give frank opinions without repercussion, Serum is the opposite of how crowdsourcing is valuable for business. Companies need to understand where opinions come from – maybe not on an individual level, but certainly at a line-of-business level. You need to know whether concerns are coming from a particular department, or from sales people selling a particular product.

It’s comical to even think of how your frank opinion might be taken, unless you’re misusing your right to that opinion. If infomania can make productivity drop through the floor, one more texting app constantly asking Millennials what they anonymously think of things is really going to leave a bruise on business.

It’s really the loosest form of a connected experience. What’s needed is more meaningful interactions – personal interactions, where information can be shared collaboratively and everyone’s opinion carries some weight. Whether done with in-person meetings or through video conferencing, that’s the right next step for business. It creates the connected experience proven to enhance, not detract from, real work.

Texting might be useful within small work groups between these more formal meetings, but it should never be seen as a substitute. And it should never add to the noise that hampers real productivity.

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine January 2015