Plugged Up and Plugged In: Productivity in a time of sniffles

The connectivity-productivity equation

We don’t need desks and four walls to get things done, just a little cloud


Hamilton Spectator, March 9, 2015
By Randy Kay

Is there a correlation between time spent at a desk in an office and productivity?

I have a terrible cold. Mucus is the focus of my fevered body. In PJs, with a box of tissues and a mug of hot tea, I call in sick then crack open my laptop. I send some work emails and then update the website. I upload an article emailed by a volunteer to a blog. I book the data projector for a volunteer using a cloud-based calendar.1429404531327

I can Facebook, tweet, and Instagram for work and play, measuring reach using analytics. After padding around in slippers feeling sorry for myself, I upload a video created by another volunteer to our YouTube channel. I scan some paper documents I brought home, transfer them to Google drive and then upload them to our online history blog. Then I have a coughing fit.

Two new volunteers filled out an online form, both of them requesting work they could do remotely. I may never meet them in person, yet they will create posters, Facebook banner graphics, edit newsletter copy. I have a few valued volunteers like that: I’ve never met them, they live in different parts of the world. They are part of our connected world. I rely on them as I do other volunteers.

I am down with a virus, but technology allows me to contribute despite the phlegmy cough. Not infecting others is just a side benefit, plus they don’t need to see my ravaged face, unless you want to Skype. Is this really a sick day?

I schedule some face-to-face appointments for later in the week when I hope to feel better. What is an office for? Is it really a place to do your most focused work?

My workplace functions as an office with large desks, a small resource library with books, magazines and videos and, with some dragging of furniture, a cramped meeting space.

We keep regular hours in the McMaster Student Centre, Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sometimes the office closes for an hour for a staff lunch.

Does productivity or inspiration happen during those five to six hours? Are we overvaluing time spent at a large desk over the ninja world of mobility? No, and I think so, respectively.

Not many people are signing out books or even videos from our collection these days. Could it be that streaming and podcasts and a host of on-demand online resources are in practically everyone’s pocket? Why trek through the snow and cold to the student centre to search for a DVD — flash drives are replacing optical drives, making the future of DVDs a question of obsolescence anyway — when you can stream that same documentary in the coffee shop, a co-working space or even the bus on your laptop or phone?

Libraries have adjusted to the new realities, creating space for collaboration, recording studios with editing software, movie sets with green screens for video production, signing out everything from camcorders and microphones to bicycle helmets. Books? They still have them, but expectations are evolving.

Sari Feldman, president-elect of the American Library Association, sums it up with her observation that “in the future libraries will be less about what we have for people and more about what we do for people.”

Why cling to outdated modes of filing? I have a dedicated team of volunteers working on our history archive. They have consigned drawers full of paper documents — stretching back into the 1970s — to the recycling bin of history. Instead, they scan documents and put them online. Now searchable on a blog, valuable for research or for sharing on social media. That grey filing cabinet taking up a corner in our small office just became obsolete. Everything is now stored in the cloud, safe from the ravages of time, mould, dust and neglect.

I’m not arguing that technology should replace the office or that I want to stay home on the couch every day, but technology can transform how we use the real estate formerly called “office” — creating more versatile space for a wider range of activity.

I used to prepare weekly event listings to send to email subscribers, copying and pasting text, adding hyperlinks to a table of contents, it took hours each week. Now it’s all done by an invisible script running behind the scenes on our website.

With new free time I’ve started hosting weekly drop-in sessions with free coffee and tea for volunteers. We create a small space for idea exchanges, using old technology such as sitting in a circle, writing notes on a whiteboard, telling stories, listening, making connections. Desks are just in the way.

It works because technology creates opportunity. Turn on, tune in and pass the tissues.

Randy Kay has been OPIRG McMaster’s co-ordinator of volunteers since 1998 and remembers nervously sending his very first email from the work computer and worrying about what might happen. Now he tries to keep up with the plugged-in students in a variety of software environments.

By Randy Kay

Experienced not-for-profit communications and citizen engagement professional

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