Too busy to talk? You’ll never be a billionaire!

Hold on a minute! I'm too busy to talk to you!

Are you too busy to talk to your colleagues? Then this new invention is for you: stick a red traffic light on your desk. It’ll work a treat: unless you want to be a billionaire.

Confused? If, like me, you suspect a lack of balance in the newspapers (as if!), there was perhaps some comfort at the weekend when I spotted two entirely contradictory articles about the way we work.

In Saturday’s Times there was a brief piece about an invention from the University of British Columbia which is, in effect, a desktop traffic light. What’s so clever is that you don’t have to make a decision about whether to signal red to your colleagues (you’re busy) or green (available for a chat).

The cunning FlowLight device monitors work patterns from your keyboard and mouse use, and gauges when you’re too busy to be interrupted. When you’re in the groove, hammering away at your PC – or simply overwhelmed by the volume of emails – this signal will warn your colleagues off.

An entirely contradictory message emerged from the Sunday Times Rich List. The secret of Sir James Dyson, family fortune £7.8bn, is to receive no more than six work-related emails a day. The Sunday Times reported that “a growing number of bosses, particularly entrepreneurs, are cutting back ruthlessly on email and encouraging staff to talk to each other. This can help productivity: it has been calculated that it takes 64 seconds to get back to work after checking a new message.”

To be fair, not all of the paper’s identified tycoons subscribe to that email ban. Martin Lewis, founder of, checks “about 300” emails on his phone, often on the lavatory.

I must receive around 100 emails in a working day, and sometimes feel as if I am drowning in them. Of course, it’s excellent to be able to contact or reply to my school’s one thousand-plus sets of parents swiftly and effectively via email, and I can keep in touch with 250 employees.

Nonetheless, as colleagues we constantly complain that we resort so readily to email it instead of talking: many of us are convinced that the quality of discourse (verbal, that is) very much defines the quality of a school.

It’s telling, perhaps, that we teachers rarely use technology to talk to our students: we prefer talk! Perhaps that furnishes an endorsement of Dyson’s wisdom. When he founded his company 30 years ago, he banned staff from writing memos, similarly convinced that talk is better.

I certainly don’t subscribe to the traffic light idea. I suspect some head teachers still have them on the office door: I never had them. Besides, nowadays I inhabit a glass box in a large open-plan office: unless I’m already talking to someone else, the door’s open and it is rare indeed that I can’t give someone a couple of minutes. It seems to me there is noblesse oblige for bosses. We have to be available: colleagues who need some kind of permission, affirmation or advice from a superior must be able to get to them – while I know that during a ten-minute conversation another fifteen emails will arrive relentlessly in my inbox. Such is modern life.

As I face retirement in the summer, I wonder if I can ensure that I don’t spend half my retired days on email. I want to keep in touch with friends, family and former colleagues, and technology is a wonderful way to do it: our daughters and we text almost every day, and value that contact.

Perhaps the moral is that we shouldn’t pretend that email and texting replace genuine conversation. Perhaps we should determine to be ruthless, keep emails short, business-like and functional, and reserve proper communication, talk, for expressing ideas and emotions.

The writers of the Sunday Times article, James Gillespie and Henry Scanlan, close with a fine moral: “If you log on and are faced with a screen of 300 emails, just remember: that is why you’re not a billionaire”.

So don’t interrupt me: I’m far too busy writing this rubbish to talk to you. And no, I fear I will never be a billionaire.



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