Rules for the Cyberoffice

Let’s Show Our Coworkers As Much Respect Online As We Show Them In Person.

When Bill Gates announced in 1988 that his new word processing and spreadsheet software would be called Microsoft Office, he was speaking metaphorically. Today, the metaphor is real. For many of us, the computer screen has replaced the office. We don’t step away from our jobs and check email: checking email is the job.

Unless you are working down in the quarry or driving a truck more than half the time at work is probably spent in the cyberoffice exchanging email. We spend hours asking and answering questions and making decisions, sometimes without coming into physical contact with another human being. I knocked on a coworker’s door the other day, and she came out and told me she does business only through email and refused to talk to me.

Social Rules

Interestingly, the social rules that govern physical space haven’t migrated over to cyberspace. The social rule most egregiously violated in cyberspace is that you don’t interrupt people who are working unless it is important. Miscellaneous, unnecessary email is like having people walk into your office all day and make small talk. You used to get fired for doing that.

Our marketing department wanted to thank a few employees who participated in a photo shoot. Instead of bothering to type in the email addresses of the few people they wanted to reach, they used a universal list and sent an email to everyone in our organization, about 1,000 people. If you consider that the computer screen is the office, then in the old physical terms, this was like they had knocked on hundreds of doors in 20 buildings and shouted: “Thank you to all who participated in the photo shoot.”

Text message emergency announcements are another curious phenomenon. When I signed up for them at my place of employment, I though I would get one or two emails a year telling me to take the day off because of snow or power outages. Instead some days I get three to six messages telling me about rainfall. Our employees are spread out over three states. I don’t care if it is raining in Indiana. In fact, I don’t care if it’s raining in Joliet where I live.

When you consider that our smartphones and computers are our office, these redundant, unwelcome weather reports are the equivalent of a coworker running down the hall shouting in people’s doors that it is raining, in another state! In the old days, that guy gets fired, too.

Social Media

Another cyberoffice problem is social media. Social media providers need to learn social skills. LinkedIn is a networking tool. Naming a computer program “networking” software was probably a metaphor like Microsoft Office, but now it is a significant cyberplace where we actually network.

We all know what physical, face-to-face networking looks like. You meet someone over lunch or at a conference, say hello, exchange business cards, and move on. Unless you are a salesperson, this might happen once or twice a day (unless you are stuck at your computer reading an endless chain of emails).

LinkedIn doesn’t want you to have to wait for these chance encounters. Instead it dings your phone five times a day to tell you that people you haven’t seen in 10 years endorsed you for a skill. Then it asks you if you want to say thanks. Their smiling faces are pictured there in little round frames making you feel antisocial if you don’t acknowledge them.

Imagine LinkedIn messages coming to you in a real world environment. You are working on your budget and someone you hardly know steps through your door with a jacked-up-on-coffee grin and says he or she is celebrating three years at the company.

Great, go celebrate. Leave me alone. I’m busy. Get that stupid grin off your face and get back to work or you won’t be celebrating anything next year.

Communication departments and line managers need to address these issues with their staff and with their IT departments. Let’s show our coworkers as much respect online as we show them in person.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]