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Rhodri Marsden: Why Office Graph could be the misdirected work email writ large


"Joan, please hold my calls for the next couple of hours." You'll find sentences like this in any number of dull novels written in the era when Joan was a likely name for someone's secretary.

But leaving aside any issues of sexism, the idea behind that sentence is pretty uncontroversial: being disturbed during periods of hard work is bad, while solitary concentration is pretty good. We know that Leonardo da Vinci's prototype sketches for a helicopter weren't produced during a series of playful brainstorming exercises. He sat alone, for ages, and slowly cranked them out.

That solitude, however, is becoming harder to achieve. Cutting yourself off from the world and getting down to the task at hand requires a certain amount of dedication and resolve. We're almost hideously connected, and consequently the battle between productivity and distraction is being fought pretty much constantly. Into this battleground now parachutes Office Graph, one of a number of social features due to be introduced later this year into Microsoft's suite of office applications.

Following the tech giant's 2012 purchase of the enterprise social-network service Yammer, it's now integrating many of the features into its flagship Office 365 software, including Office Graph (back-end trickery that learns about working patterns and behaviour within an organisation), Groups (neatly presented information about who is doing what and to whom) and Oslo (which displays, among other things, "trending" issues in the workplace, from rumoured takeovers to malfunctioning photocopiers).

The uninhibited flow of information is a good thing. But we've all felt weary exasperation when we're copied into an email thread that's only tangentially relevant to us, and something such as Office Graph, if mishandled, could become that misdirected "cc" writ large. "Connections make information more relevant and people more productive," said Jeff Teper, Microsoft's corporate vice-president, when these changes were announced this week – and while that may be true in certain circumstances, a survey just released by the productivity service Webtrate shows how we yearn for unnecessary distractions to be taken away from us during working hours.

 A solid 62 per cent of respondents admitted to feeling less happy because of the effect of the internet on their productivity, and while they're probably referring to personal email or Facebook, the only fundamental difference between Facebook and something such as Oslo is the subject matter. Anyone can turn Facebook off without worrying that they've missed anything important, but the same can't necessarily be said for a work-based social network. The assumption that colleagues have seen a piece of information because it's circulating on a social network feels like a potentially heavy mental burden.

Engagement, networking, social, connectivity – these are words that hardly ever carry any negative connotations. But there are times when we need to retreat into ourselves and knuckle down, unburdened by digital buzz. Microsoft obviously isn't forcing anyone to use anything, but there's a misplaced assumption behind all kinds of software, from online bingo to television apps, that "social" is inherently good. In a work context, you often just want out, not least at the end of the working day. So hold my calls, Joan, and my tweets, and any vaguely relevant news, because right now I need to be alone.