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How to manage digital distractions at work

Think about the last meeting or conference you attended. The speaker was likely talking to herself, while everyone else was busy with their gadgets, and didn’t not even try pretending they were listening. We are so used to this behaviour that started considering it normal. But is it really so innocent?

Founder of Consciously Digital Anastasia Dedyukhina talked about the cost of digital distractions and why an “always on” culture is a problem at the roundtable for senior HR professionals at Rethink! HR Tech summit in London. You can use the discussion summary below to help your employees be more focused and creative.

The cost

It turns out, the cost of digital distractions is high. They can result in decreased productivity, poor decision making, lack of creativity, and increased stressed for employees. Some researchers calculated that an average company loses $10,790 per employee every year on digital distractions. Even brief interruptions can eat up to 40% of our productive time, and about 60% of work-related interruptions happen because of technology (incoming emails, notifications etc).

Technology encourages us to multitask, but most humans aren’t good at multitasking, as shown by researchers at Stanford. We don’t actually multitask, but rather switch between different tasks. It takes our brain some time to go back to what we were doing, so every incoming email or notification will decrease your productivity. Researchers say that even the mere presence of a smartphone reduces brain power.

Distractions have also been shown to lead to worse decision-making. When overloaded, our pre-frontal cortex (part of the brain responsible for self-control) stops differentiating relevant information from irrelevant, and we are more prone to make mistakes.

Another side effect of the “always on” culture is the potential lack of creative and innovative ideas. Creativity comes from our brain creating new connections between existing facts. You may have noticed that your best ideas come not in front of the computer, but when you are in the shower or walking, and your brain is “connecting the dots”. However, to do that, it needs time to “digest” information we’ve been feeding into it. By constantly overloading it with new information, we don’t allow this digestion to happen (similarly to what would happen we were constantly eating and not giving the stomach time to digest the food). When we don’t have a “thinking space” where our brain isn’t stimulated, we are less likely to come up with innovative ideas.

Stress and burn-outs is another possible consequence of always being on. Researchers found that a mere expectation of a work-related email outside of working hours can lead to an increase in stress levels. Harvard Business School experiment showed that strategy consultants who could predictably unplug once a week to focus on their project felt better, delivered better product and had better relationships within the team and with the client.

Last but not least, distractions can have a negative effect on the team morale and motivation. When checking our device while another person is speaking, we send them a signal that what they have to say isn’t that important. “I remember one of the young employees being really upset after his presentation. He spent a lot of time preparing it and felt very nervous, but nobody actually listened to him, they were too busy on their smartphones”, shares one HR director.

The problem

Given that we have lots of research that shows that digital distractions has a huge cost, why many of us are still behaving the old way? Why is multitasking or replying to emails over the weekends encouraged in many places?

First, it’s tricky to have a one-fit-all solution. All work styles are different. One person wants to work over the weekend or in the evening, because they want to be with kids at daytime, while another asks the HR, what time their work actually finishes. Millennials are connected all the time, while the older generation may choose not to be part of any social network. It’s important to keep the balance and allow people to work the way they’re mostly productive and healthy, rather than establishing rigid regulations for the whole company.

Second, there is just not enough awareness about the real cost of distractions, about how our brain works, and how focus and space are important for good decision making and creativity. Managers often give bad examples by themselves, emailing everyone after working hours. Some of them even think that if an employee responds to an email fast, it means they are productive and loyal, and reward this behaviour. This can set up the culture, where urgent prevails over important, and not all employees, especially young ones, will feel empowered to challenge it. Spreading awareness about the real cost of digital distractions can help with it.

Third, technology can be not only distracting, but also liberating, and many people don’t want to lose the benefits it offers. “I like to be able to take notes on my phone and email them to myself”, says one participant of the round table. How can we know, when instead of helping us, technology becomes a problem? One way to determine this boundary is to ask ourselves: is this particular use of tech making my life easier? Or am I losing time or focus with it?

Fourth, we are not taught to manage people’s expectations and make lots of assumptions about what they want from us. There are way too many channels that we have to manage, and people expect us to be available on all of them, unless we let them clearly know we won’t be available. In the aforementioned Harvard Business School experiment, consultants initially resisted unplugging because they thought the client would be unhappy. It turned out, the client didn’t care as long as he knew when consultants will be contactable again.

The solution

How can HR help employees find a balance between being online and offline?

First, leading by example. Start from small things like not cc-ing everyone, to regularly reminding employees that if we as HR are emailing them out of the working hours, they don’t have to. Also, we can try getting senior management on board, so that they can “lead by example”, too. If a CEO can step up and say that the company isn’t expecting employees to be connected 24/7, even if he or she is sending emails on a weekend, this can send a powerful message. Encouraging personal conversations as opposed to emailing is another message a CEO can send to employees. For example, a CEO of one company does every day 8am “porridge” sessions in the buffet, when everyone find him to ask any questions, as opposed to sending emails.

Second, raise awareness about the cost of distractions. You can start by asking employees, how often they think they are disrupted, and whether being able to stay focused would help them do the work better. Helping people understand how brain works and where creativity comes from will help managers accept that a disconnected employee is not a bad employee.

Third, in order to respect everyone’s work style and not to come across as over prescriptive, HR may offer some solutions on how not to distract other people, as opposed to how not to be distracted yourself. For example, one company has set up Thursday as a meeting-free day. Similarly, we can propose specific “disconnected” time periods (i.e. Friday afternoons), or blocking certain hours in their calendar, when employees can choose not to focus just on one thing. During these hours, they can be contacted for truly urgent inquires by phone, or in person, and HR suggests everyone to respect these hours. Merely having this option to disconnect makes an employee more empowered to push back against the boss or colleague when they need space to think.

Encouraging to respect others doesn’t have to be serious. One company, for instance, used a “mobile spa” box with a palm tree near it at meetings, where everyone was asked to put their phones to give the some rest while the owners are working. This helped the meetings be shorter and more productive.

Fourth, HR can organize and facilitate discussions on consolidating all the platforms the company uses with the help of IT department. For example, it’s possible to use API to set it up the way that skype calls will be forwarded to a person’s phone if they are not picking it up, but only before 5.30pm). Employees should be aware of these options that can make their lives easier.

Fifth, we need to encourage the culture that honours flexibility. Great ideas are rarely born in front of the computer. Instead, teams can have walking phoneless meetings outside of the office for 15 minutes, as practiced by one company. HR can propose to set up a “tech-free” area in the office, where people are encouraged not to bring their devices, but just come and think, or chat with others. Offering a few standing desks will also encourage employees to stay more focused (it’s difficult to stand for a long time, and we tend to be more focused when standing).

Whichever solution you go for, they need to be simple, and help reduce the amount of things to manage, as opposed to adding to them.

What is one thing that you as an HR can you do this week to help your employees stay more productive and creative in an age of digital distractions?

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