BY PETER WANYONYI
Over 80% of professionals that use computers for more than 4 hours a day complain of back pain, in particular lower back pain. This is a well-known phenomenon, and doctors have long counselled a sparing use of computers and a correct posture when using them.
Even worse, 90% of people who work at a computer screen have some symptoms of eye trouble, with 50% having problems serious enough to warrant corrective glasses.
Ophthalmologists recommend that computer users must step away from their visual display terminals for at least 5 minutes every single hour. But in Kenya, sitting at one’s desk for hours on end is seen as “working hard”, and managers get concerned when a worker takes breaks away from their computer every hour or so.
Alongside this comes another, more concerning statistic: sitting at a computer terminal, typing away, and generally being in the computer world for 8 hours a day or more doesn’t translate into more productivity – in fact, quite the opposite. Being stuck at a computer the whole day tends to lower productivity, with most computer-bound workers being most productive early in the morning and the productivity tapering off as the day advances: by early afternoon, most workers are in auto-pilot mode, surfing the internet, posting on social media websites, glued to their mobile phones chatting with friends and family, or making plans for the evening – anything other than work.
The ubiquity of technological devices and the pervasive connectivity afforded by the internet have combined to make communications easier and instant in virtually all cases. But alongside communications have come tools that are bad for productivity and even worse for personal lives, the first of which was email. This was the first “killer app”, a software application whose functionality afforded such convenience that it was soon practically all over.
There’s no serious commercial company in today’s economy that does not operate an email domain, with an extensive directory that allows employees to send messages to each other. And this is a bad thing, because the ability to communicate by typing into some impersonal word-processor-enabled window has completely done away with the need to communicate face to face.
The loss is incalculable: personal conversion has thousands of cues and reactions that cannot be duplicated in email, and relying entirely on email strips office workers of a layer of personability in their communication, a layer that is vital to understanding and navigating the world around the office. Employees are terrified of being “off email”, and the majority are forever under pressure to “read your email” and to “reply now”. Some young employees get into the workplace thinking “talking to someone” means sending that person an email!
But if email is bad for productivity, social media are completely poisonous for the organisation. The advent of smartphones has moved social media from computers onto mobile phone screens, and with that has disappeared the last chance we had of any normal conversations around us. Instead of wishing a colleague a happy birthday in person – or at least making a call to talk to them, actually hear their voice – tech-savvy Kenyans today simply post a “happy birthday” message on the person’s Facebook or Twitter timeline. Any restaurant or other social place today feels like a gathering of nerds, with virtually everyone glued to the screen of one device or the other.
It’s worse at work, where employees appear to be working when in fact they are browsing the latest Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat etc postings from their friends and family.
All this multi-tasking – being on WhatsApp Facebook, Instagram and so on – actually reduces productivity. Employees are too busy online to do any real work. In the worst scenarios, people actually walk into meetings with their smartphones, and turn to their phones for entertainment when they get bored with whatever is going on in the meeting. Recently, a jobseeker at this magazine’s offices walked into an interview with his earphones on.
So, how to remedy this situation without being necessarily obnoxious about technology? First, every organisation needs to have casual spaces where employees can catch up: a dining room, a kitchen, a tv room, just a place with comfortable furniture and which is exempt from whatever officialdoms the rest of the company has to indulge in. Employees should be encouraged to use the room for their lunches, snacks, or just chilling out and relaxing a bit, while catching up with everyone else. It works great if there’s a fridge and a microwave or two in the room, and if the fridge has milk and other beverages that employees can partake of freely – paid for by the company.
Next, employees must be banned from eating lunch or snacks at their desks. They must be compelled to get up and out of their desks to the kitchen or outside for a bite. It would help if compulsory computer breaks were introduced – for example, all organisation computers can be scheduled to disconnect from the internet every two hours or so, to force users to walk away for fifteen minutes or so.
Finally, every company needs a no-computers day: one day in a week or so, on which no employee is allowed to use their computer. Employees can be encouraged to explore the rest of the organisation on that day, or to just have a chat with their workmates. If this is impossible, a no-email day would suffice. Bottom line: the less you compute, the more productive you are!