He will probably be called backward, but Mitsuyasu Ota, the mayor of Hirata in Japan, doesn't care. In a bold and highly unpopular move, the boss of the town's municipal offices has just imposed a one-day-a-week ban on the use of computer equipment at work.

The move, Ota says, is intended to show staff how to work. "Despite administration being human contact work, there are a lot of young staff who mistakenly think that they are working just by sitting at their computers," he says.

Unsurprisingly, the Hirata City staff claim work will be left undone as a result. Writing by hand and communicating without email, they gripe, will be "inefficient" and waste paper. But Ota is not interested in their complaints. It was his own love of computers and his increased reliance on them, he points out, that prompted him to impose the computer-free day.

In our hi-tech modern world, such a step seems like self-inflicted torture. To most of us, wiping out computer use at work would be inconceivable to the smooth running of the office.

But perhaps Ota is right. Perhaps our computer-heavy culture actually does more harm to our work than good.

When computers were introduced in our working lives, they were seen as the key to a hyper-productive workplace. But the promised benefits of increased IT investment have failed to materialise.

Take a peek at some of your co-workers and you might see why Ota has chosen to veto one of his favourite office tools. Those hands gliding across the mouse pad may actually be succumbing to the latest edition of computer solitaire.

Likewise, electronic mail has proved a mixed blessing in the workplace. As well as the time-consuming replies to friends and colleagues, experts admit that email exchanges at work are rarely as productive as face-to-face conversations.

"Communicating via computer doesn't require you to interact with individuals," says Ivan Robertson, an occupational psychologist at UMIST (1).

As people use computers continuously and intently, he argues, it is much harder for bosses to understand how and what work is being done. "A lot of it looks the same these days - just people staring at a screen. In the days of paper mail, people walking past could see whether or not you had stuff to deal with. Now anyone casually casting an eye over your desk can't tell how much work you have to handle and what's urgent and what's not. Work has become more privatised."

For that reason, it is harder to detect the time-wasters or those distracted from their work.

Adapted from The Guardian, Wednesday July 26, 2000

(1) UMIST : University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

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