Are We Really Becoming More Distracted At Work?

Rather than blame technology we should accept that we over-value noise and activity, and under-value silence and contemplation.

According to a BBC piece a recent study found 20% of UK workers reported difficulties switching off from work and feeling ‘always on’ as they struggle to adapt to hybrid working and the permeable boundaries between home and work. Hybrid, it seems, can come with a greater risk of digital presenteeism with people feeling they need to prove themselves to eagle eyed bosses by being constantly available.

Like everything else that’s happened during the pandemic, this is just revealing what was already hiding in plain sight, the way we work is badly designed, if it’s ever been designed at all.

Workplace distraction is nothing new. Over fifteen years ago a study by Dr Gloria Mark and her researchers found that the average employee was interrupted by a colleague, email or phone call every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. Then they looked at device switching between the PC, the desk phone, any kind of paper document, the mobile phone. They found the average amount of time that people spent working on a device before switching was 2 minutes and 11 seconds.

This was before the smartphone. Before Microsoft Teams, Slack or instant messaging. Why would any of this have got any better?

A lot of people are talking about Stolen Focus, the new book  by Johann Hari in which he writes about our diminishing ability to focus, and what it means for our future. There’s a lot to like in the bits I’ve read of it even though the main thesis of the book, that technology is shortening our attention span, isn’t supported by a great amount of actual evidence.

True, technology is deliberately designed to distract because that’s the key to profitability. When we’re looking at our screens, Facebook and Google make money. When we’re not, they are thinking of new ways to drag us back.

However, people have made the argument that technology is messing up our brains before. They did it when radio was invented, and the cinema, and TV, and video games. And still we thrive.

If anyone is to blame for the distractions in the modern workplace it’s us. We were the ones who have rolled out tool after tool whilst never thinking to switch any of them off. We’ve been cheerleaders for agile working and have ushered in a maelstrom of constant interruptions from interaction tools in which we are all expected to respond to in real time.

If you can’t respond straight away you’re expected to broadcast your presence. As Jason Fried writes stay “away” (which most often actually means you’re working, but don’t want to be bothered) and people begin to question if you’re at work at all. Leave “away” on too long and you’re seen as unreliable. As he says, everyone’s status should be implicit: I’m trying to do my job, please respect my time and attention.

This way of working – constant interruption by external stimuli – is termed “continuous partial attention”. Simultaneous attention is given to a number of sources of incoming information, but only at a very superficial level.

This is destructive to achieving any sort of ‘flow’ – the state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Steven Kotler writes that in a 10-year study,  executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as everyone else does in a week.

The real issue here is how we design the future of work – rather than letting management and technology dictate what that looks like through a constant series of app notifications, prompts, and email reminders.

Why Time—and Silence—Is So Important

In a thought provoking piece Stowe Boyd writes that we need to learn to balance time with other people—which tends toward noise, but still can be high value—against time alone, which tends toward silence. ‘Fast gets all the attention, slow has all the power’.

One of the issues I have with agile working (which never feels very agile funnily enough) is the presumption that teams using agile methods get things done faster. And fast is always good.

Fetishising speed results in just hurrying up. And once going fast is on the table, things quickly start falling off.

It’s time to stop being slave to speed, to seeing technology and apps and digital transformations as saviours of our time. On this I’m very much with Johann Hari – they give us the illusion of saving time whilst stealing it from us.

We must remember there is no evidence human attention spans are shrinking. If we want to concentrate we can.

The new Batman film runs to nearly 180 minutes, the longest of the franchise.

The latest Jordan Peterson interview with Joe Rogan is 4hr 13 minutes.

I’m about 16 hours into the campaign mode of Halo Infinite.

If something is worthy of attention we give it our attention. The question is whether we think our work is worthy – and whether we give ourselves and each other the space and time to do it well.


Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

Author: Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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