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Opinion | The new laws of the digital workplace

Six not-so-serious axioms every office-goer needs to know in an era when digital devices, instant messaging and social media rule

Newton’s law of physics are a familiar memory from school—the most famous being that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Equally and painfully familiar is Parkinson’s law—work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. No wonder things always get completed at the last minute. But in today’s workplace, where digital devices and platforms are in our lives all the time, it is important to establish the new digital laws of the workplace.

Since famous business gurus have not yet undertaken this endeavour, this columnist has stepped in to fill the gap. We bring you a compilation of the digital laws every office-goer should be aware of.

Mobile Distance Axiom

The Mobile Distance Axiom states that the distance between a person and his or her mobile phone is inversely correlated with the amount of productive work that gets done.

In other words, if your mobile phone is close to you, and if you are a normal human being who is prone to temptation, then tough luck. You will end up checking your WhatsApp and email messages on your phone so often that it is unlikely you will have a focused discussion or get creative work completed. A corollary to this axiom is that wise executives keep their mobile phones far away during important meetings.

Fifty Percent Rule

The Fifty Percent Rule simply states that on a normal day, at least 50% of all people who attend a meeting will be busy reading or writing messages on their laptops, tablets or mobile phones. Therefore, it is unlikely they are paying serious attention to the proceedings of the meeting. At large, irrelevant conferences, where every participant is generally anonymous in the midst of hundreds of people, this percentage can creep close to 100%.

The corollary to this rule is that the chairperson of any important meeting would do well to request all participants to turn off all their digital devices, or keep them out of sight, until the meeting concludes.

Law of Infinite Messages

The Law of Infinite Messages reveals a great digital truth. The number of emails and messages that reach you every day are too many to count, and there is no end to how quickly they pop into your inbox, app or timeline. Therefore, it is futile to try to read or respond to each, and any such well intended effort is doomed to failure.

An outcome of this law is that good managers develop the fine art of quickly identifying all the digital noise that they need to totally ignore, and simultaneously pick out the very few really important messages that they must pay attention to.

Group Disruption Theorem

This postulates that each manager is part of at least one digital group that threatens to disrupt his or her life every day. This could be a work group on some shared digital platform, a WhatsApp group of college batchmates, a Google group of residents of your apartment building, or an ad-hoc group on LinkedIn to which you have recently been added for reasons you are still trying to fathom. At least one of these digital groups will post one or more provocative messages during the day, which will seize and disrupt your mindspace completely.

For instance, your apartment residents’ Google group could suddenly post a message informing you that there has been serious water leakage in all kitchens. That’s enough to disrupt everything else for the moment, including the strategy document on which you have been trying to work.

Of course, no strategy is worthwhile if the kitchen is getting flooded. Digital gurus are still hunting for the corollary to this theorem.

Day and Night Rule

This rule states that digital devices are uniformly active during day and night time as they don’t need any rest. Unfortunately, we humans are creatures of tired muscles and fraying nerves, so we need good, deep sleep—eight hours is recommended, though a distant goal for many of us. All this creates a situation where the same digital devices that are our inseparable friends during the day try to intrude into our nights.

There is only one good solution. Switch off your digital devices at a specified time each night, ideally at least half an hour before you get to bed. Then sleep well, as far as possible from the digital world.

The Sunrise Postulate

Your agenda for the day is set first and foremost by your digital behaviour as soon as you wake up.

If you check your digital devices first thing in the morning after you wake up, and begin responding to various messages, which were received during the night, then that is exactly the way your day will flow. On the other hand, if you ignore all this digital noise at sunrise, and first set your priorities for the day, then you have far greater control over what you will achieve over the next several hours. If you are not the type that wakes up around sunrise, or if you do not sleep at all, then you are beyond this postulate.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He is a strong proponent of Occam’s digital razor, a new-age version of an age-old philosophy, which states that to live and work happily, you should minimize the number of digital devices you use. Zero is brilliant but rare, one is fine, two is tolerable, three is a noisy crowd, and four is a mad stampede.

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