Watching the war at work: Firms try to find a balance

Every workday, Scott Gross calls lunch about two minutes before noon. That gives his three employees enough time to gather round the kitchen table at his home office before one more person joins them via TV: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Mr. Gross, who markets his books on customer service from a remote Texas "ranchetta," sees this ritual as a way to keep his "business family" both informed and focused during tumultuous times.

"We chat in the morning ... and then we know at lunch we're going to get a news update," he says of the practice they started after Sept. 11. "For big news events, we'll pump news right into the offices, because they are distracted anyway - let them make the decision as to how much they want to hear or see."

Some people have always considered themselves "news junkies." But workers have been especially hungry for the latest developments as war news has picked up its pace. Whether they are concerned about market swings or a co-worker called up for duty, the need to be in the know at work hasn't been this intense since the twin towers collapsed.

Staying productive is the challenge - especially for employees at wired workstations that offer the latest live video feed. Business owners and managers have to figure out how best to let people get the news they need without imposing it on those who are content to stay unplugged for hours at a time.

"Even if a certain amount of productivity is lost while people are standing there [watching news] open-mouthed or even crying, you always need some feeling of camaraderie at work," says Jan Jasper, author of "Take Back Your Time: How to Regain Control of Work, Information, and Technology."

"Work is where people spend most of their waking moments, and you can't deny them that type of experience," adds Ms. Jasper. "You can't treat people like automatons."

On the other hand, she says, "if people become obsessed with following up-to-the-minute news all day long, it's very stressful."

Even before the US fired its first missiles into Baghdad, certain moments were just too important for some people to miss. When President Bush gave a televised press conference the night of March 6, four top boards of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania interrupted their tightly scheduled semiannual meetings to broadcast his remarks on giant screens.

"It really surprised me.... Everything stopped," says Vige Barrie, a member of the school's Executive Alumni Board. "I had a sense people were maybe anticipating a declaration of war.... Particularly in a group of businesspeople, what the president says certainly comes into play in guessing what the market is going to do."

At the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, administrators sometimes set up a television in the cafeteria when important news is unfolding, says Michelle Samplin-Salgado, a communications manager there. But since the Sept. 11 gatherings, the TV has taken on ominous connotations. A few weeks ago it was set up for something unrelated to the lead-up to war, she says, "but there was kind of a sense of panic - people were asking, 'What's going on?' "

For everyday news, Ms. Samplin-Salgado turns to e-mail alerts and websites. She's in good company. At least 36 million people went online on the day of Mr. Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to disarm or leave Iraq, according to estimates by ComScore Media Metrix. The next day, with US attacks under way, traffic to various TV news-channel sites spiked about 200 percent.

People are "lingering a little longer" at the TVs set up in break rooms at the Freddie Mac offices in McLean, Va., just outside the capital, says spokeswoman Shawn Flaherty. "Overall, we are operating business as usual - although the war is the chief topic of conversation."

At Gross's office, the TV comes on more frequently now, for periodic checks of CNN and updates from Gen. Tommy Franks.

Managers shouldn't be concerned that tapping into news about the war will take employees off track, says Ms. Jasper. "If there's a problem with lack of productivity, it was a preexisting problem," she says.

But it might be useful to talk about the need for restraint, says Andrew DuBrin, a management professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Business. A manager could tell employees that she recognizes their desire to check on the news, but then suggest, for instance, that they restrict it to about three minutes per hour.

"Allowing people to stay in touch with what's happening is a display of compassion, and that makes a leader admired," Dr. DuBrin says. "But on the other hand, you want to continue working, because why add to the cost of the war [through] lower productivity?"

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