Hitting the messenger

I used to work with a guy who really hated the office printer. And the fax machine. And the photocopier. More often than not, you’d hear him screaming at some poor piece of technology, his voice reaching from the third floor all the way to the basement.

Sometimes, you’d hear a thud as

he emphasized his disappointment with a heavy fist or sharp kick.

Needless to say, he had some issues to work out.

I’m sure others have similar tales of co-worker frustration, or have experienced first-hand the urge to smash a misbehaving gadget. (I know I’ve tried to teach a lesson to a vending machine or two, but that’s when there’s money involved. Well, my money.)

Whatever the case, it’s now official: you’re not alone. Earlier this month, Hewlett-Packard Canada Ltd. announced that more than one in 10 Canadians have actually kicked photocopiers, while three in 10 have harboured secret violent thoughts with errant machines, but chose not to act on them. That’s according to a recent survey of 1,000 Canadians by Ispos-Reid, conducted for HP.

A second poll, conducted with IT and facilities managers from a sample of 400 businesses, is equally banal in its findings. Turns out that 78 per cent “”strongly agree”” that network-friendly printer-copier combos are important. Just so happens that HP sells multifunction devices, making everyone a winner.

What’s the point, you ask?

What with anger on the road and in the air, it was only a matter of time before someone went out of their way to show that technology rage exists and is an “”issue””. While ITBusiness.ca editor Shane Schick addressed this topic in an earlier editorial, HP has now managed to make a segue from social anthropology to product promotion.

Hewlett-Packard’s solution predictably involves buying more (functional, reliable, etc.) stuff — and that’s where this phony-baloney poll really falls apart.

People don’t let loose with the punches just because a machine doesn’t work. People hit things because they’re already stressed, angry or otherwise emotionally unable to cope with technical problems.

We should be glad that, for the most part, office workers keep their irrational anger confined to inanimate objects. If HP’s logic held sway, we’d see a lot more users taking a swing at IT staff, or vendors, for that matter, who don’t live up to expectations.

The real source of so-called technology rage is a combination of shrinking resources and growing demands on workers across the organization. Desk jockeys and propeller-heads alike are forced to do more with less, often with divergent or conflicting priorities.

In this context, paper jams, wonky operating systems and slow Internet access exacerbate the problem. I don’t know about you, but I find a 30-second wait between Web pages can be excruciating when I’m working to deadline. At more relaxed times, it provides me with a good excuse to get another cup of coffee.

Smart managers already know this, and do what they can to alleviate the problem. Open discussions, flexibility and responsiveness to complaints or concerns are obvious touchy-feely ways to resolve conflicts, but there are other concrete methods as well.

Proper training for users, as well as regularized technical support are good answers. Many organizations have even established service-level agreements in-house, with IT departments responsible for answering queries and fixing problems within certain time frames. In many cases, these agreements are negotiated among departments and shared with staff, setting the ground rules for future complaints.

And yes, technology can play a role in all of this. Automated systems can let users see for themselves if a problem has already been reported, and what’s been done about it. Smarter network equipment and software can detect and repair problems on their own.

But if the kind folks at HP really want to help, maybe they can make a printer that beats itself up when it jams, leaving us with more time for real work.

johnsaunders@sympatico.ca

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