A messy office is the sign of a genius, right? Or perhaps it's the sign  of someone without enough time to organize things properly. Photo: Ken Berkman
A messy office is the sign of a genius, right? Or perhaps it's the sign of someone without enough time to organize things properly. Photo: Ken Berkman

As I read about the American Public Works Association's Top 10 Public Works Leaders in your September 2006 issue (page 22), I came across the following quote: “[New engineers] enter the workplace with a command of a vast array of technologies that gives them more time to think about innovative solutions.”

I chuckled at several bits of that statement and wondered: Are we better off than previous generations, both personally and professionally? Technology is wonderful and invaluable, no doubt about that. But it doesn't come without its baggage.

The first thing that jumped out at me is “time”—specifically, the idea that we have more of it. Ha! Show of hands, please: How many of you have more time to do anything these days? The fact is, we stuff more work into the day than ever before with our computers and cell phones, e-mail and voice mail, along with those extra-long leashes known as PDAs. (Faxes are used only by solicitors, right?)

Are you ever not available? These innovations are an essential part of our lives, but they're also the bane of our existence. Listen to previous generations talk about the “good ol'days.” They accomplished a lot but still had time to take a breath. Every once in a while I find myself pining for a water cooler.

Now add “time to think.” These precious moments are becoming increasingly scarce. Who has time to think when the cell phone is ringing or the e-mail is rolling in? Add to that a public that is increasingly demanding and wants things done yesterday (remember: they have the technology, too).

Odds are your councils and boards are the same way. I always crack up when I get an impatient phone call from someone who sent me an e-mail five minutes earlier. “Did you get my e-mail?” And this is from the co-worker down the hall!

“Innovative solutions.” This is the favorite part of our job, right? We became engineers because we like to figure things out. We went into the public sector because we want to positively impact our neighbors' daily lives. If you're like me and have worked in the private sector, you realized the public sector was the way to go if you wanted any semblance of a decent work/life balance.

So we have all this great technology to create new solutions to old problems, but still have to contend with the fact that we are spending public money and there are tons of attorneys out there just waiting for one of us to screw up. This doesn't mean innovative solutions are not being produced. I'm always inspired by successful peers across the nation who do so. It's just that we need to go the extra mile and make sure we have done our due diligence to limit the potential of failure and subsequent liability.

And that takes time.

In this day and age of “do more with less,” we need to recognize how technology affects us. There's a delicate balance of usefulness for technology. The tools we use to increase our productivity can do just the opposite if abused.

A few thoughts for preventing this:

  • Close the door and turn off your phone for an hour if you need to. The most productive hour of my day is after everyone's gone home.
  • Use the “more difficult” communication method. Pick up the phone and call instead of e-mailing; get up and talk to the person instead of calling. Nothing beats a face-to-face talk to make sure you're understood. Then document by e-mail if you have to.
  • Have staff that can cover for you so you can turn off the PDA and cell phone on your days off, and take those vacations to recharge your batteries.
  • Make time for the most important people in your life, including yourself.

“Ken, you just need to take a few courses in time management,” you might say. I have! How do you think I found the time to write this article?

Now if you'll excuse me, I gotta answer my cell...

— Ken Berkman is the city engineer in Agoura Hills, Calif.