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

The Convoluted Mess of The Hybrid Workplace

What if hybrid ends up being a mix of the worst of both worlds?

Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent.

McKinsey

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, Dave Hollis wrote a tweet that would prove to be prophetic. In the rush to return to normal, he said, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.

Well , people did consider this. And they didn’t rush back.

Whether you term it a great resignation, or as I prefer, a great reshuffle – people are reconsidering the role of work within their lives. And the prize seems to be increased autonomy rather than simply increased pay.

The emerging data highlights distinct generational differences – but shows a trend of people moving away from restrictive roles towards those which offer a better work life balance.

The shockwaves for employers have only just begun to be felt. As lockdowns are lifted and work from home mandates ebb and flow employers have found that their previously compliant servants has discovered how and when they want to work, rather than wait for some top down ’employee offer’.

Employers may claim to have a distinct culture and purpose, but the behaviour of many of our institutions during the pandemic has left many doubting their authenticity.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values. Has that happened?

Employee burnout has doubled since lockdown ended, according to Glassdoor, whose survey showed that flexible working was only one part of the jigsaw, with better performing organisations also having flatter structures.

Companies congratulating themselves on their newly found hybrid work approach should pause to reflect. What a lot of people are now experiencing is the worst of both worlds.

As Emma Goldberg writes, this sudden mash-up of remote and in-person work “has resulted in a mushy middle ground: video calls where remote workers have trouble hearing, a sense that people at home are missing out on perks (teammates), while those in the office are, too (pajamas). And the stakes aren’t just who is getting talked over in meetings. It’s whether flexibility is sustainable, even with all the benefits it confers.”

My most absurd experience , in a year of absurd experiences, was literally carrying a remote colleague around during an in-person workshop. Holding their dimly lit face on a laptop and positioning them so they could see some post-it notes on a whiteboard. My battery power died and I forgot all about them until they text me to ask if the session had finished.

Hybrid takes effort. Token attempts at employee engagement just don’t work (btw is there anything in the recent history of mankind that is more soul crushing than a festive Zoom quiz?). Companies that have crafted very strong, definable cultures have tended to be fully in-person or fully remote, not mixed.

Equally remote work isn’t equal for everyone. A study from Qualtrics, found that 34% of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared to just 9% of women with children. There are similar disparities for ethnic minorities.

Our offices, those that are still there, look increasingly adrift and desperate. Stowe Boyd , as ever, has a good take on this: “One of the potentially smart things companies might try to entice workers back: converting open office space — which almost everyone hates — to private offices with doors. Those who share a home with family or flatmates might find respite in a quiet place to work heads down, in peace.” He goes on to make another great point: “Taken to the most extreme: what if some of the unused office space was turned into something like Airbnb rooms, so those who have moved outside of easy commuting range might come into the office for a two- or three-day onsite, working and not-working in the office. This could be coordinated with team members for once a month intense working sessions, too.”

To get hybrid work to work it will take creative thinking like this, breaking the fourth wall between Microsoft Teams and real life. It means really getting to know individuals and understanding productivity at a very human level, listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones. It means letting our people become the designers of their own unique workdays, and giving them the right tools and permissions.

Or maybe we just need less work. Signalling that people will sacrifice some pay for a better life Spanish high-end apparel brand Desigual introduced a four-day work week at its headquarters in Barcelona last month, raising expectations in the business and political arena in Europe, where some other pilot trials have been launched.

No employee works on Friday and they can choose to work remotely any of the four working days. The company has subsidized half the cost of the 13% reduction in working hours, with employees overwhelmingly agreeing to a 6.5% paycut.

Four days a week, no meetings, you choose the hours and work where you want. Is this the future of work or just the late 2021 expectations of the many?

When people have a 60-Year career you need to design something that’s sustainable for the long term not built on burning people out by the time they hit 50. Indeed -“If a 60-year career sounds like a nightmare, perhaps that’s because we’re imagining 60 years of work as it is for many people today: inflexible, all-consuming, poorly matched to the rhythms of life.”

There could be a silver lining to all of this where people re-engage with their own work on their own terms , but this is going to require huge flexibility from employers. Most will find this a challenge, and I expect to see further pandemic workplace aftershocks between now and 2025

Let’s remember that for almost all companies hybrid work is an experiment, and most experiments fail. The best experiments are small and build upon previous evidence.

When nothing is certain in the short-term never mind the long; a good approach to take colleagues with you is to “test and learn” rather than “show and tell”.


Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

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