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The Quiet Office

By Herb Shields | 02/01/2011 | 12:40 PM


            My work as a supply chain consultant causes me to spend a lot of time in client and prospect offices.  One of the interesting things that I have noticed in the last few years is how quiet the typical office is today versus 10 or more years ago.  We all know the reasons for this – e-mail has replaced phone calls, thus less phones ring.  Many people have their phone automatically programmed to voice mail, so no ringing there either.  In many companies, fewer people have more to do, less time for “casual” conversation.  E-mail also generates a record of the exchange, whereas phone calls or face –to-face conversation, unless recorded, are undocumented.  In several instances, I have seen people at adjacent work stations sending e-mails back and forth, rather than turning around to talk directly to their neighbor.  People now go immediately to the internet to find answers to many of their questions, the idea of asking a person has become passé, or does not even occur to the latest generation of students.


By now you are probably asking, “What does this have to do with Supply Chain Management or Consumer goods?”  Part of the reason supply chain management developed into an important business process was to improve visibility from the supplier at one end of the process to customers at the other end.  Visibility allows us to “see” what is happening through the process.  But the supply chain also relies on communication flowing seamlessly from end-to-end and, in this writer’s opinion, e-mail is not always the best way to accomplish this.  My contention is that we have lost something in the process.  Today’s most successful supply chains are based in part on collaborative relationships, partnerships, etc.  Does an e-mail sent to 10 different people in two different companies support a collaborative effort?  Would a live discussion add more value?  Part of our rationale is that the global nature of many supply chains makes face-to-face communication impractical, but I think we would all benefit from more dialogue with each other and fewer e-mails in our respective in-boxes.


A former colleague of mine, Carole Veronesi of SGC Consulting works with companies in the change management area when a company is undergoing organizational or systems changes.  Carole did some research on e-mails and has this to say about them:

“A few years ago I created an electronic survey on e-communication. An organization I know agreed to distribute it to their employees. Most agreed that it is critical to form strong relationships at work for decision making, problem solving, collaboration and good team relations. Most agreed that the best way to form relationships, either with internal or external customers was through face-to-face communication. And, most agreed that they were not using face-to-face communication, even when they could, and it was limiting their effectiveness.

I also asked about Blackberries and other 24/7 devices. Most admitted they were expected to be on call 24/7 and they did not like it, yet were unwilling to speak up. No one was talking about the electronic communication issues.  When I tried to get members of the organization to look at the results, I was not able to generate enough energy from the manager to set a date, even though I disclosed some of what I thought were disturbing findings.

Bottom line - Electronic communication certainly serves a purpose in our organizational life. And yet, we have accepted the fact that there are limits, and that we would be more effective without the overuse of these electronic devices. But we are unwilling, uninterested, or unable to break the cycle of our dependence.

New research show the increase of stress and anxiety from always being “plugged in” and waiting for the next message, so we can respond immediately (even though an immediate response may not be necessary). There are lots of questions, lots of thoughts on why. But for now, our offices are too QUIET to talk about it!


Are we too enamored with this new technology to care whether it really benefits us? Is this another addiction? Are we just not ready to make choices about how we want to live with each other and the quality of these relationships? Are we concerned about the quality of our work?”

Now you have heard two opinions.  I hope to hear from some readers on this subject.



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About Herb Shields

Herb Shields

Herb Shields has run Chicago-based HCS Consulting since 2000, helping clients across multiple industries and in higher education improve their supply chain strategy and execution. Shields has more than 30 years as an operations executive for capital equipment, automotive, electrical machinery and consumer products companies. As vice president of materials management at consumer goods company Helene Curtis, Shields led the supply chain organization that helped Helene Curtis win "Vendor of the Year" awards from Wal-Mart Stores and Target Corp. Shields has a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from Clarkson University and did graduate work in business at Bowling Green State University.


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