Where’s The Shredder?

Technology was meant to make our lives easier. But when you're spending three hours a day reading email and listening to voicemails, you really start to wonder.

It seems like only yesterday. First, there was the mimeograph room where everyone liked to enjoy a whiff and then came the snap set carbons which allowed one to mark their climb in the organization from carbon #5 to #1 and then finally, the original. But wait—the best was yet to come. Welcome copiers, printers, mailrooms and in baskets; could it ever get better or more efficient than that?

Of course it could; that was just the beginning. Written memos were displaced by email messages usually shorter in length and grammatically flawed but easily copied to an unlimited number of recipients. Even better, the ‘Reply All’ command kept everyone informed whether they wanted to be in the loop or not. Of course, using this paperless technology we would often print an email as a reminder, and then find 10+ unwanted pages in the tray dating back months.

In the age of mimeograph and carbon copies preprinted pink slips were used to record messages from callers. Once again technology prevailed and voice mail took their place. And then, welcome the digital cell phone, combining calling, voice mail, email, calendars and the ‘now’ capability of texting. How on earth did we ever run a business without these tools? How on earth can we run a business with them?

His name was Roger. He was vice president of operations for a service company with dozens of technicians in the field. Following a two and a half hour planning meeting I accompanied him to his office to review a document he wanted me to see. As I did so, he put his phone on speaker and called his voice mail. ‘You have 102 new messages.’ His shoulders slumped; he sat down with pen in hand and began playing them…one by one.

Walter was the CFO of a company experiencing cash flow problems. Around five o’clock in the afternoon he would return to his office after a day full of meetings and check his voice mails. On one occasion I sat with him as he dialed up VM. His situation was worse than Roger’s, not in terms of number of messages but in content. On that particular day he had 135 messages, all elevated accounts payable calls, the majority rude and threatening.

As a CEO I noted the volume of emails I received where I was copied but not the ‘To.’ Those multiplied during the day as recipients communicated with each other, often arguing and worse, sometimes with offices no more than 50 feet apart. One day I noticed my phone indicating I had voice mail and yet I had been in my office for hours but not on the phone. Someone had figured out how to forward voice mails.

Think of the math—you likely don’t have to, you’ve been through this—100 voice mails, if only two minutes on average require three hours and twenty minutes of ‘listening’ time. Even if a combination of quick deletes and lengths of one minute instead of two—still, an hour and a half not including note taking and responding. For some of us, the time commitment is spread out throughout the day; for Roger and Walter, it was very condensed and painful.

So what, comes with the territory, right? It does, but there are methods and practices we can put into place ourselves or with executive assistants that can make our time more manageable.

• Outgoing call, conference call or scheduling a meeting – if you are so fortunate to have an executive assistant, his/her skills are likely better that yours in accomplishing these tasks efficiently.

• VM incoming – set a time limit and put it in your greeting; ‘leave a 1 minute VM and I’ll get back to you’

• VM outgoing – if you have to leave a message, do so or “call me on my cell between 1 and 4 today and if I don’t pick up, advise the best time to call you back”

• Email incoming – add an automated reply message: “I check my email before 8AM, at 1PM and after 5PM. Anything requiring my attention sooner – please call me.”

• Email unwanted incoming – Use ‘Reply All’ and message ‘Drop me from distribution please.’ This one usually makes some on the list squirm.

• Email outgoing – if sending an attachment, and it can be done, embed it in the email as well; a bit easier for the recipient to read if scrolling down is all that is required.

Sounds simple I know and likely you already do some or all. The point is, technology intended to make us more efficient and productive can do just the opposite if we let it. Think of the evolution to “paperless” and the likelihood that your shredder is next to your copier.

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.