Is the ‘Attention Economy’ hindering performance at work?

Two men and a woman seating at a table looking at a tablet. One man is holding the tablet while the other is holding a stack of paper and the woman holds a notepad and a petn

The challenges of the ‘attention economy’ at work

I often hear from colleagues and clients about the frantic pace of work today. They feel beset by outside forces that compete for, or demand, their attention, both in their work and non-work lives. The “Attention Economy” is a term that is often used to reflect the idea that our attention is a limited resource. In today’s technology-based world, various technologies in and outside of our work lives compete for this limited resource with their workflows, feeds, alerts, nudges and notifications.

Technology offers organizations the opportunity to deliver great service, experiences and content, to streamline processes, and to make work more productive. At the same time, some would argue that today’s technologies — especially social media and other always-on digital media — are designed to get us hooked, even going as far as to suggest their use stimulates addictive chemicals in our brains. According to this view, if the designers of these technologies don’t reward our attention with unique stories, self-actualization or the powerful feeling of being understood, they will not receive our ongoing attention.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for organizations — against the backdrop of the Attention Economy and the “over supply” of information, how do organizations deliver a compelling employee experience while maximizing the benefits that technology offers? The answer starts with a deeper examination of the attentional requirements for performance and peak human experiences in which people feel connected to the world outside, while experiencing a heightened sense of connection, joy or flow, and that supports productivity and performance.

Peak human experiences

I recently read “The World Beyond Your Head” in which Matthew Crawford argues that the above view of technology and attention also means there is an increasingly pervasive distraction from a more fundamental engagement in the external physical and social world. He makes a compelling historical analysis to show that today we place the highest value on “personal choice” and autonomy as a basic human right. However, when we fail to put our attention to deliberate use, it becomes open to distraction. We consider ourselves free to choose where we place our attention, but have left our mental lives open to the agendas of others, albeit often (falsely) presented to us as choice in our use of technology.

Crawford also argues that we have traded away deeper experiences that connect us to the outside world, and shares many examples where mastery and peak performance of a craft or productive work — from short order cook to laboratory scientist — comes through honing skills and experience connecting us to the physical and social world. Directing at least some of our attention to this outside world is a necessary element for peak human experiences, and for emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing.

Implications for organizations

I believe we can use this backdrop to design experiences for employees that optimize their attention for both productivity and the “human” experience at work. To do that, we need to acknowledge that the context for employee attention is challenging and that technology can both help and hinder. Organizations can think about supporting employees’ attention at several levels. While not an exhaustive list, consider these five examples:

1. Optimizing the cultural and leadership context

  • Start with the broad context, and design and deliver a high performance culture founded on a strong sense of purpose, interesting work and social connections. This will likely embrace an inclusive culture where people can be themselves in their work and interactions with others.
  • The role of leaders and managers is key as they connect employees emotionally to the broader organization’s purpose, and ensure that the workplace fosters trust and connections, likely built through shared human-to-human interactions. Technology can enable this, especially when operating across geographical boundaries.

2. Technology as an enabler

  • When making technology decisions, pursue improvements in customer and employee experience (as well as cost savings). For example, ensure employees are enabled by technologies that are reliable, connected and have the information they need to work effectively (e.g., answer customer queries quickly). This will help avoid defragmenting of services, content and experiences that place high demand on attention.
  • HR technologies should aim to deliver a personalized, content-rich experience. The greater the personalization, the less attention employees need to give to find relevant content.

3. Work and process design

  • Wherever possible, design the work and business processes to promote a peak state for performance. I have written about “flow” previously, a state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity. Flow is most likely to occur when one is fully focused on performing a single task that is sufficiently challenging (not too hard; not too easy), the person has self-perceived competence, and they are able to receive feedback in real-time to understand their progress.
  • Work also needs to be designed with “down time” between bursts of “high intensity” when delivering cognitively complex or highly creative tasks that demand extreme levels of attention. Science shows that our brains can focus on any given task for approximately 90 minutes. This idea, known as ultradian rhythms, means that attention often needs to cycle with down-time before redirecting to another task.

4. Supportive HR program design

  • Create learning and development experiences that come — at least in part — through a shared social experience. This is in line with the increasing focus on social learning, peer-to-peer coaching and shared development experiences.
  • Make sure your talent value proposition includes a commitment and a holistic approach to health, wellbeing and flexibility.

5. Design Thinking

  • Use tools that support great design, such as design thinking to help create the optimal employee experience. Design thinking is fundamentally about how the design feels for the user. It is used to construct experiences that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional. A focus on the physical work environment and designing for optimal focus and attention for the activities required is another example.

To summarize, technology in and outside of work is already playing a central and often pervasive role in employees’ lives, often competing for limited attentional resources. Alone it is unlikely to provide or supplant more fundamental human experiences at work. We can design to help employees optimize their attention for both productivity and the peak human experience at work through the context (e.g. culture and leadership); the technology design (e.g. personalized content); the work cadence, work design and business processes; and the people programs and processes that support focused attention and performance.

About Hamish Deery

As Managing Director, Talent & Rewards, Asia and Australia & New Zealand, Hamish Deery leads Willis Towers …
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