Work Productivity: Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

From today’s New York Times by Susan Dynarski:

Step into any college lecture hall and you are likely to find a sea of students typing away at open, glowing laptops as the professor speaks. But you won’t see that when I’m teaching.

Though I make a few exceptions, I generally ban electronics, including laptops, in my classes and research seminars.

That may seem extreme. After all, with laptops, students can, in some ways, absorb more from lectures than they can with just paper and pen. They can download course readings, look up unfamiliar concepts on the fly and create an accurate, well-organized record of the lecture material. All of that is good.

But a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces.

Measuring the effect of laptops on learning is tough. One problem is that students don’t all use laptops the same way. It might be that dedicated students, who tend to earn high grades, use them more frequently in classes. It might be that the most distracted students turn to their laptops whenever they are bored. In any case, a simple comparison of performance may confuse the effect of laptops with the characteristics of the students who choose to use them. Researchers call this “selection bias.”

Read the entire article here.

Class Actions Lawsuits by Women Could Fight Discrimination in Tech Industry

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Anita Hill:

The recent leak of a Google engineer’s screed against the company’s diversity initiatives is a reminder that the notion of Silicon Valley as the seat of human progress is a myth — at least when it comes to way the women behind the latest in technology are treated.

The tech industry is stuck in the past, more closely resembling “Mad Men”-era Madison Avenue or 1980s Wall Street than a modern egalitarian society. It may take the force of our legal system to change that.

The leaked memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” called on the company to abandon its efforts for gender diversity and replace them with a focus on “ideological diversity.” The author even claimed that biological differences make women poorly suited to engineering. While the document may be unusual in its explicit embrace of this kind of backward thinking, the attitudes that underlie it are nothing new in Silicon Valley. Google’s decision to fire the employee responsible for the memo neither dispels the notion that a systemic problem exists nor solves it.

Since a former Uber employee published her blog post detailing her experience with the ride-sharing company’s toxic, male-dominated culture, a stream of female coders, engineers and others have come forward to discuss their experiences with sexual harassment and hostile, discriminatory workplace cultures. Companies like Google, Tesla, Twitter, Microsoft and Oracle face allegations of sexism in the form of individual lawsuits and Labor Department inquiries.

Sadly, these types of cases represent only one element of the industrywide discrimination against women in tech. There’s also an alarming gap in pay and promotions, which has devastating effects on women’s careers.

Read the entire editorial here.

Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

From today’s New York Times by Jack Ewing:

SINTRA, Portugal — The rise of robots has long been a topic for sci-fi best sellers and video games and, as of this week, a threat officially taken seriously by central bankers.

The bankers are not yet ready to buy into dystopian visions in which robots render humans superfluous. But, at an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change.

“There is no question we are in an era of people asking, ‘Is the Robocalypse upon us?’” David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience on Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists.

The discussion occurred as economists were more optimistic than they had been for a decade about growth. Mr. Draghi used the occasion to signal that the European Central Bank is edging closer to the day when it will begin paring measures intended to keep interest rates very low and bolster the economy.

“All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area,” Mr. Draghi said. His comments pushed the euro to almost its highest level in a year, though it later gave up some of the gains.

But along with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning — artificial intelligence.

Policy makers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out. That has, in part, nourished the political populism that contributed to Britain’s vote a year ago to leave the European Union, and the election of President Trump.

“Generally speaking, economic growth is a good thing,” Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said at the forum. “But, as recent political developments have brought home, growth is not always enough.”

In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way. Farm machinery displaced farmworkers but eventually they found better paying jobs, and today their great-grandchildren may design video games.

But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor.

Read the entire article here.

A New Kind of Tech Job Emphasizes Skills, Not a College Degree

From today’s New York Times by Steve Lohr:

ROCKET CENTER, W.Va. — A few years ago, Sean Bridges lived with his mother, Linda, in Wiley Ford, W.Va. Their only income was her monthly Social Security disability check. He applied for work at Walmart and Burger King, but they were not hiring.

Yet while Mr. Bridges had no work history, he had certain skills. He had built and sold some stripped-down personal computers, and he had studied information technology at a community college. When Mr. Bridges heard IBM was hiring at a nearby operations center in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills.

Now Mr. Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making $45,000 a year. In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money — and career ambitions.

“I got one big break,” he said. “That’s what I needed.”

Mr. Bridges represents a new but promising category in the American labor market: people working in so-called new-collar or middle-skill jobs. As the United States struggles with how to match good jobs to the two-thirds of adults who do not have a four-year college degree, his experience shows how a worker’s skills can be emphasized over traditional hiring filters like college degrees, work history and personal references. And elevating skills over pedigree creates new pathways to employment and tailored training and a gateway to the middle class.

Read the complete article here.

End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email

From yesterday’s NYT “Opinion” by Clive Thompson:

This Labor Day weekend, odds are you’ll peek at your work email on your “day off” — and then feel guilty about it.

You might envy the serene workers at Daimler, the German automaker. On vacations, employees can set their corporate email to “holiday mode.” Anyone who emails them gets an auto-reply saying the employee isn’t in, and offering contact details for an alternate, on-call staff person. Then poof, the incoming email is deleted — so that employees don’t have to return to inboxes engorged with digital missives in their absence. “The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” a Daimler spokesman told Time magazine. “Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.”

Limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany, where Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom have adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends. If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely. It not only could, but it should.

White-collar cubicle dwellers complain about email for good reason. They spend 28 percent of their workweek slogging through the stuff, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. They check their messages 74 times a day, on average, according to Gloria Mark, an authority on workplace behavior and a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

And lots of that checking happens at home. Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that most were umbilically tied to email a stunning 13.5 hours a day, well into the evening. Workers don’t even take a break during dinner — where, other research shows, fully 38 percent check work email “routinely,” peeking at the phone under the table. Half check it in bed in the morning. What agonizes workers is the expectation that they’ll reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour. Hence the endless, neurotic checking, and the dread of getting in trouble for ignoring something.

So as a matter of sheer human decency and workplace fairness, reducing the chokehold of after-hours email is a laudable goal.

But it also appears that, from a corporate standpoint, the sky won’t fall. The few North American firms that have emulated Daimler all say it is surprisingly manageable.

At the Toronto office of Edelman, the global public relations firm, managers created the “7-to-7” rule. Employees are strongly discouraged from emailing one another before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. Sure, they can check email if they want — but they’re not to send it to colleagues. It’s an acknowledgment that the only way to really reduce email is to persuade colleagues not to reflexively write every time they have the tiniest question.

Those who do are scolded. “You have to stick to it,” Lisa Kimmel, the general manager of the office, told me. “When we tell prospective employees about it, their eyes light up.”

Even start-ups are experimenting with email limits. Book Riot, a website for book lovers, has eight full-time employees who mostly work remotely, in different time zones, on often hectic schedules. They all agree: Email someone whenever you want, but don’t expect a reply until the recipient is back in the office.

“It’s understood that if someone has a crazy idea at 3 a.m. and sends it, that’s their problem that it’s 3 a.m. — you respond when you want,” Rebecca Schinsky, the site’s director of content, told me. At the Boston Consulting Group, when a team of stressed-out consultants began organizing “predictable time off” — no-messaging zones during their off time — their total work hours dropped by 11 percent, yet the same amount of work was accomplished.

Why would less email mean better productivity? Because, as Ms. Deal found in her research, endless email is an enabler. It often masks terrible management practices.

When employees shoot out a fusillade of miniature questions via email, or “cc” every team member about each niggling little decision, it’s because they don’t feel confident to make a decision on their own. Often, Ms. Deal found, they’re worried about getting in trouble or downsized if they mess up.

In contrast, when employees are actually empowered, they make more judgment calls on their own. They also start using phone calls and face-to-face chats to resolve issues quickly, so they don’t metastasize into email threads the length of “War and Peace.”

This is basic behavioral economics. When email is seen as an infinite resource, people abuse it. If a corporation constrains its use, each message becomes more valuable — and employees become more mindful of how and when they write.

Granted, not all late-night email is bad. As Ms. Deal found, employees don’t like being forced to reply at 1 a.m., but they appreciate the flexibility of being able to shift some work to the evening if they choose. And they don’t mind dealing with genuine work crises that crop up during leisure hours. At Edelman in Toronto, employees try not to bug each other in the evenings — but if a client emails with a time-sensitive issue, they’ll respond.

These changes can’t happen through personal behavior: The policy needs to come from the top. (If your boss regularly emails you a high-priority question at 11 p.m., the real message is, “At our company, we do email at midnight.”) And some changes may seem like matters of housekeeping, but have major repercussions, like keeping a separate email box for your personal messages. You can’t ignore your work inbox if that’s also the place where friends send you weepy accounts of their breakups.

But it’s worth it. More than a century ago, blue-collar workers fought for a limited workday with an activist anthem: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” It’s a heritage that, this Labor Day, we need to restore.

When Tech Makes Work Worse

From yesterday’s NYT “Op-Talk” Blog by Anna North:

When we talk about robots taking people’s jobs, we often mean it almost literally — we envision if not the humanoid androids of science fiction, then at least machines programmed to do tasks once done by humans. But technology may also be altering Americans’ working lives in another way, via the software and hardware that companies use to determine when and how they work.

Read the entire article here.

Technology, Aided by Recession, Is Polarizing the Work World

From the NYT “Upshot” Blog by Claire Cain Miller:

The American work force has been growing polarized for decades. On one end, there are highly skilled jobs like writing software or performing surgery, and on the other are service jobs like child care and cutting hair. The jobs in the middle, meanwhile, such as factory work, sales and bookkeeping, are shrinking — one of the reasons for the economy’s slow climb out of the recession.

Where did those jobs go? Part of the answer lies in Silicon Valley. It is no coincidence that many of those jobs entail the same repetitive tasks that computers, robots and other machines are uniquely suited to perform, from robots loading conveyor belts in factories to Kayak.com selling airline tickets.

new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows how the recession accelerated the displacement of these midwage jobs. As technology now encroaches on jobs that people assumed would always belong to humans, it is useful to consider those most affected by the job displacement so far: the young, the less educated and men.

A lot of economic research has focused on the polarization of jobs, notably by David Autor of M.I.T. He differentiates between routine tasks that follow well-defined procedures — the kind of midwage jobs that computers have become so good at — and nonroutine ones that require flexibility, problem-solving and human interaction.

The new study, which analyzed data from the Current Population Survey from 1976 to 2012, illustrates that the recession had a disproportionately large effect on routine jobs, and greatly sped up their loss. That is probably because even if a new technology is cheaper and more efficient than a human laborer, bosses are unlikely to fire employees and replace them with computers when times are good. The recession, however, gave them a motive. And the people who lost those jobs are generally unable to find new ones, said Henry E. Siu, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of the study.

Young people and those with only a high school diploma are much more likely to be unemployed and replaced by a machine, he said. And to the authors’ surprise, men are more vulnerable than women.

“When you look at data, women who would otherwise be finding middle-paying routine jobs tend to be moving up the job ladder to these higher-paying brain jobs, whereas men are much more likely to just be moving from blue-collar jobs into not finding a job,” said Mr. Siu, who wrote the study with Guido Matias Cortes of the University of Manchester, Nir Jaimovich of Duke University and Christopher J. Nekarda of the Federal Reserve in Washington.

The changing demographics in the United States play a small role in the loss of midwage jobs, as do policies related to offshoring, unions and the minimum wage. But the study found that two-thirds of the decline in routine jobs is explained by a drop in the number of unemployed people who can get these jobs, and an increase in the number of people who had these jobs and lost them.

And the driver behind those shifts is technology.

“Over the very long run, technological progress is good for everybody, but over shorter time horizons, it’s not that everybody’s a winner,” Mr. Siu said. “Certain demographic groups like the young and less educated in another world would be doing fine, but in today’s world are not.”

The line between jobs that are considered routine and able to be done by a machine and those that require a human brain is a blurry one and becoming blurrier, said Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of M.I.T., authors of “The Second Machine Age.”

“There are examples up and down the spectrum,” Mr. Brynjolfsson said. “It’s a process of scientific discovery. It’s not like we know exactly which task will be next to automate.”

Already, machines are learning to do certain jobs that once seemed confined to humans, from elder care to wealth management to art. The question is what will happen if these jobs also disappear.