Efficiency Overload

Deconstructing the notion that demand for more means better productivity.

ByBill Weir

May 8, 2008— -- When the elevator call button is lit, do you hit it again to enforce the demand? When it finally arrives, do you punch the "close door" button to speed things along? If so, you are in the majority.

"They all think they're the most important person in the building and the elevator should be waiting for them," Sean Moran says with a laugh. He is in charge of the vertical transportation at 7 World Trade Center, one of the most advanced elevator systems in the world.

Designers at the Otis Elevator Co. have studied our collective patience over the years and found that it is shrinking fast. In big American cities these days, the average person waiting for an elevator starts to get anxious in under 30 seconds. A minute is considered an eternity. How did this happen? Ever since Thomas Jefferson invented the automatic double doors, efficiency has been an American obsession.

The Industrial Revolution was supercharged when observers with stopwatches began scrutinizing every process from the factory to the home. The Remington Typewriter Co. posted signs over workers' heads: "To save time is to lengthen life."

That sentiment gave rise to everything from microwaves to remote controls, sound bytes to speed dating. And the Digital Revolution has only quickened the national heartbeat.

In the mid-1990s, a little more than 10 percent of Americans had a cell phone. It's more than 80 percent today. Computers are 10,000 times faster than those of 30 years ago, and whether it's for work or play, trying to drink from this fire hose of information creates a need to multi-task. More than half of Blackberry users admit to checking e-mail in the bathroom and in bed.

"When you start to account for the fact that someone might be watching television and using the computer at the same time, you start to find that they're able to accomplish about seven more hours of activity in any given day," says Patrick Moriarty of the consumer research firm, OTX.

But just how productive is a 31-hour day? Studies have shown that when the quantity of activity goes up, quality goes down and stress takes a toll.

"So many different aspects of culture are feeding into this," says David Shenk, author of "The End of Patience."

"There is the immediacy of communication. There is the media that moves quicker and quicker. There is this instant gratification everything that's coming our way and kind of helping things supposedly get more efficient. But it's also speeding up our expectation."

One sign of this can be found at Disney's California Adventure Park, where a redesign is underway to help entertain frustrated families waiting in line for rides.

And while wireless technology has broken the chains of the office, it has also blurred the line between work and play.

Despite the best efforts of the resorts in Maui, hospitality managers acknowledge it takes the average vacationer three days to let go of work. And some never do at all.

"It's killing me that I haven't checked my e-mail," says Carriann Slattery, a newlywed relaxing poolside at the Westin resort. "I know that when I get back to work and have about 800 e-mails, and that makes me want to throw up a little bit."

Her new husband Neil smiles and nods. "We didn't bring our Blackberries, but there is still a fax waiting for me at the front desk. I don't think I'm going to make it two weeks without checking my e-mail."

Walk along the idyllic beach, and it's not hard to find people ignoring paradise in favor of text messages. Monte Jorgensen is among them, putting down his PDA to order another drink. "I think it's a good trade off. I would rather have it that way because I'm in control. I can still be connected or I can put it away and I'm disconnected. So it just gives me that piece of mind that I'm not missing anything but if I need to shut it off, I can wait and come back to it later."

Otis Elevator understands the modern need for control. Turnstiles at 7 World Trade Center scan each employee's I.D. and directs them to the fastest elevator for their particular floor. As a result, there are no floor buttons in the latest, greatest model. But there is a "door close" button, handy for those hoping to save just a few seconds more.

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