Surfing the wave of information overload

27 February 2019

Is your productivity suffering because of incessant email interruptions and constant WhatsApp distractions in the always-on workplace? Here's how to deal with information anxiety.

Six minutes. That’s how often the average knowledge worker checks in with some form of communication tool. We check our smartphones 52 times a day, on average. It's become so dire that 40% of us never get 30 minutes of uninterrupted focused time in a workday. So, how do we stay productive in the always-on era?
 
In part two of this Investec Focus Radio podcast on the future of work, we speak to Marc Kahn, the global head of Organisational Development and Human Resources (OD and HR) at Investec, about what employees and companies can do to manage information anxiety and boost productivity in the digital age.
 
Listen to part one of the podcast: 5 myths about the future of work

Listen to podcast: Productivity in an always-on era

Listen to Marc Kahn, Investec's global head of OD and HR, about how individuals can be more productive in a chaotic digital world.

Need for speed

The smartphone has changed the game when it comes to how we work, as well as our work hours, says Kahn. "What we're really dealing with is less of a time issue and more of a speed issue. The expectation of speed of response has changed, and that has affected our experience of time.
 
"Today, what would have, say, 50 years ago, taken four days to communicate – and back then, it would been considered relatively quick – you can do in about 30 seconds to a minute via WhatsApp."
 
This makes the volume of work you can get through in a day exponentially greater, explains Kahn. And the speed with which we can do things in the workplace is now even faster, thanks to the advent of automation, which takes care of manual tasks so we don't have to.
 
How do you deal with this tidal wave of communication? "Everyone has a choice on the speed of response. It's about prioritisation, the ordering of things," says Kahn, who regards the lack of productivity as a sequencing problem. Being organised in terms of knowing who and what is most important, is key.
Marc Kahn
"Everyone has a choice on the speed of response. It's about prioritisation, the ordering of things."

Mark Kahn, Investec's global head of Organisational Development and Human Resources

The expectation of multi-tasking

At the 2018 Discovery Leadership Summit in Johannesburg, internationally renowned leadership coach Caroline Webb said multi-tasking is a myth and that you have to single-task if you want to do something properly.
 
Kahn disagrees. "The expectation is that you must manage complexity as a high-end worker through sequencing and organising communications."

Three ways to manage communication overload

Avoid voicemail

Disable your voicemail, or ask people to rather send you a text or WhatsApp.

Switch off email pop-ups

Turn off email notifications that pop up and distract you from the task at hand.

No more blue ticks

On WhatsApp, disable the function that shows a message as being read, removing the expectation of an instant response

Working 9-5? Not a way to make a living

"You don't turn your phone on at 9 o'clock when you start work and off at 5 o'clock. Everyone knows you don't – your manager knows you don't, your subordinates know you don't, your clients know you don't," says Kahn.
 
So, to avoid working every waking minute of your day, the secret to productivity, he believes, is to use your common sense to evaluate the importance of communications you receive in this permanent flow of transactional information.
 
You don't turn your phone on at 9 o'clock when you start work and off at 5 o'clock. Everyone knows you don't.
The people who will thrive in the digital economy will be those who can prioritise and carve out time accordingly – it isn't about how long you work, but how effective you are. "Employees will be paid for the value they deliver, not the time they work," says Kahn, who believes working hours in employment contracts will soon be a thing of the past.
 
Interestingly, some countries are going the other way, insisting on employees’ "right to disconnect". France, for example, introduced legislation in 2017 that makes it mandatory for employers to negotiate the obligations of employees to communicate after work hours.
 

Creating an enabling culture for productivity

 
Time management doesn't come naturally to many people, and while companies have spent a lot of time teaching staff how best to serve clients and how best to relate to each other, very few provide this training in a digital context.
 
As Kahn puts it: "Companies are not saying, 'We expect you to interact using these various digital channels in the following manner, and here are some really good tips on how to sequence, prioritise and organise your communication between yourself and colleagues and clients.'"
 
Another potentially poor use of time is the endless meetings that employees are expected to attend. Kahn points out that for certain non-sensitive discussions, there are better ways to engage with colleagues; for example, via a closed WhatsApp group or a quick 10-minute stand-up meeting every morning.
 

Digital workplace ergonomics

Could where you work also be a cause for less productivity? The constant buzz and distractions in an open-plan office can result in frazzled employees, and it's also been found to reduce human interaction.

A Harvard study followed two Fortune 500 companies that were switching to open-plan offices. Researchers compared how employees interacted in their new office space before and after the switch. They found that face time between employees decreased by up to 70% and emails and texts shot up by 50%.
 
The evolution of the workplace is not reducing communications with employees, says Kahn. Instead, employees have just transported themselves into digital interactions.
 
"Physical workplace ergonomics have now got to account for the way we communicate digitally," explains Kahn, who believes companies should make more welcoming spaces for employees to interact away from their desks.
 
Kahn believes that the Google workspace metaphor has been over-engineered. "It's about creating a comfortable human environment. You don't need to allocate spaces with labels on them to say: 'Here is a meeting space.' Create this optionality in your environment, and staff will self-organise and self-utilise it in a sensible way.
 

Self-regulation in time management

 
In a recent interview with best-selling author Dan Pink, we discussed the findings of his new book, When? The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, in which he describes the different chronotypes (early birds, night owls, etc) of people when it comes to productivity.
 
He also writes about how the majority of people move through the day in three phases: we peak in the morning, go into a trough over lunchtime and then experience a recovery in the early evening.
 
Watch our interview with Dan Pink on the science of perfect timing
 
The modern workplace, with all its many distractions, runs counter to this order of the day and forces us to fit in with a particular regimen.
 
Every team must think carefully about what the best conditions are for things like remote working or flexible working that makes sense for them to create value. 
 
Again, Kahn comes back to self-regulation being the key to productivity. "The more an organisation can create the flexibility for different people to utilise their rhythms appropriately, rather than make everyone do certain things at certain times, the better the value creation would be that comes from that sort of workforce."
 
This principle also applies to flexibility and whether employees can work out of the office. There's no one-size-fits-all solution. "Depending on the nature of the task, the team and the individuals involved, different environments will be more conducive to creating value," says Kahn. "Remote working is going to detract from value creation and at other times, remote working is going to create the value."
 
Companies in a digital age need to be able to give their staff the flexibility to create flexible working arrangements. "Every team must think carefully about what the best conditions are for things like remote working or flexible working that makes sense for them to create value. This must be done while continually tracking value creation and iterating and recontracting the policy where necessary."
 

Overcoming information anxiety

Says Kahn: "You are not in control and you can never be totally in control." The complexity of today's digital world and the sheer number of demands on your time mean you will never be on top of everything.
 
"So, what do you do when you can't control everything around you, you can't know everything, you can't respond to everything, you can't be on top of everything? What you do is you surf," says Kahn. "You can't control the sea, but you can learn to surf and relax into the rhythm of the chaos, so you don't get dumped too often and enjoy the ride."
 
That's what individuals can do, but companies also need to embrace the new paradigm of self-regulation. "Instead of controlling the environment, give people the ability to self-regulate and be responsive to the flow."
 
Marc Kahn is the global head of Human Resources & Organisational Development for Investec. He is a psychologist (HPCSA & PBA), a chartered business coach (WABC), a certified master coach (IMCSA) and a seasoned management consultant. He is also the author of Coaching on the Axis: Working with Complexity in Business and Executive Coaching.

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