Remote employees work in environments of too much information, too many distractions and too many apps, not to mention interruptions from kids who need help with online learning or pets that need feeding. While we're all convinced we can multitask, studies show that people lose significant time, focus and creativity when switching tasks.
Working from home creates massive demands on employee attention, which can make it challenging to focus on tasks that require concentration. Technology meant to help can actually hinder concentration. Employees confront a daily overload of notifications, alerts, invitations to Zoom meetings, e-mails, texts, messages from Slack and more—all meant to boost team collaboration.
Chris Dyer, author of the upcoming book Remote Work: Design Processes, Practices and Strategy to Engage a Remote Workforce and Boost Business Productivity (Kogan Page, 2021), said employees and organizations must begin by defining priorities. "Organizations must be clear about what they value most: output or attention," he remarked. "If we value output, then employees should be encouraged to block time on their calendars for deep-focus work, should arrange meetings outside of their most productive work hours and should be willing to decline meeting requests when overwhelmed. If an organization values attention, on the other hand, then employees should be prioritizing constant replies and activity [with customers], Slack or other collaboration apps."
The Costs of Digital Distraction
Digital distraction impacts performance, which impacts the organization's bottom line. Depending on the nature and pervasiveness of digital distraction, it can also impact employee engagement and retention.
Distraction can grind the flow of work to a halt. "It takes about 20 minutes to get into a flow state," said Scott Crabtree, co-author of All Work and Some Play (Happy Brain Science, 2020), "so if we're interrupted for more than about two minutes, we need to spend another 20 minutes to get back into the focused state we were in before. Your boss interrupting you for three minutes, for instance, costs you about 23 minutes of lost time."
The proliferation of apps and platforms meant to boost collaboration can lead employees to lose time simply searching for work-related information. "Front-line workers waste an average of three hours every week searching for information they need to do their jobs. Every time a worker has to stop, it derails their train of thought and disrupts their workflow, also creating a more stressful work environment," said Louise Willoughby-Petit, vice president of people at workplace app Beekeeper.
Tips for Balancing Concentration and Collaboration
How can organizations help remote employees stay focused and collaborate with team members via apps? Here are some suggestions:
1. Audit your apps. Complete an analysis of the platforms, apps and systems your organization is currently using, said Kerry Wekelo, chief operating officer at financial services firm Actualize Consulting. Make note of the uses for each one to see if there is overlap or unnecessary features that could be eliminated.
2. Cull the (app) herd. Know the difference between support and micromanagement. Overwhelming your team with apps and tools is not a good way to support them, said Jessica Lim, HR manager at MyPerfectResume. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Have an open discussion about the number of tools you have in place, ask your team which tools are the most helpful, and remove those that don't bring any real value.
3. Turn off the apps (for designated times). Work blocks are one of the most effective strategies for finding the right balance between employee concentration and collaboration, as is leadership communicating the need to be respectful of "do not disturb" time. By blocking off your calendar, you are creating time for uninterrupted work (shutting off the apps), or providing available times for colleagues to schedule meetings with you or for you to be active on whatever collaboration apps you use, said Amy Mosher, chief people officer at human capital management software provider isolved.
4. Consolidate apps/tools. If possible, seek one app that gives everyone access to the same information, eliminates silos so employees can reach and connect with anyone else in the company, creates a channel for collaboration, and integrates all other workplace systems into one hub so employees use a single sign-on for all work communication, Willoughby-Petit said.
5. Leverage asynchronous video communication. Sending asynchronous communication (like e-mail or text) enables the recipients to access it whenever they choose, said Sean Gorman, chief operating officer at video management system Panopto. Recorded meetings and on-demand video are effective options when real-time communication isn't necessary or possible and written correspondence isn't enough to communicate messages clearly and efficiently. Although employees may still need real-time solutions for remote communication, asynchronous solutions allow employees to plan their workday and focus more deeply on work.
6. Close the trust gap. If a manager is pinging an employee and then not hearing back, the manager might assume the employee is slacking off, said Karen Mangia, author of Working from Home: Making the New Normal Work for You (Wiley, 2020). Consider using a collaboration platform where an employee can alert team members and his manager that he is going to take 90 minutes to immerse himself in a task.
"Technology that connects employees provides a key outlet to maintain some of what was lost in the remote-work shift," said Maximo Castagno, a sociologist and chief product officer at workplace app Beezy. "Finding the right balance between concentration and collaboration, in a context of app fatigue, takes continuous effort. Some level of push and pull will always be there."
Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.