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Improve employee engagement: How to reclaim your employees’ attention

If you ask any company in the world if they would rather have focused employees or distracted ones, what do you think the overwhelming response would be? 

Focused, of course.

Despite this, the reality for most organizations is that employees are constantly distracted at work. From persistent push notifications to constant emails, how do we expect employees to get any work done?

Employee attention is low, workplace distractions are high   

The tools, devices, and technology we use daily are purposely designed to grab our attention. Bright colors, pop-ups or game-like technology do a successful job of engaging users. But at what point do they do their job a little too well?

Yes, it’s important for employees to stay up-to-date, to be in the know, and to be able to communicate efficiently with each other. However, the engaging nature of the technology and apps we use are subsequently making us more distracted. The severe consequences of this deepening problem affect productivity and the quality of our work.  

Not only do they affect our work, but the style of constant communication and reachability induces stress and anxiety and encourages employees to multitask. This causes the quality and efficiency of work to fall.

According to the popular podcast, Your Undivided Attention, technology companies are locked in an arms race to seize our attention. The hosts, leading product designers, Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin (the son of the legendary Apple developer Jef Raskin), discuss the hidden design elements that have the power to hijack our attention, manipulate our choices and destabilize our real-world communities.

Capabilities with user-centered design and advanced tech are limitless, however, our current technology is not fitting our human practices and cognitive abilities. It starts with minimizing user engagement and maximizing the things that users care about – the things we can and need to focus our attention on. This allows users to achieve better connectedness, improved work-life balance, life-long learning, and more support.  

As product designers, their initiative is to create awareness and push software companies to be constantly thinking about how they can design their product to avoid the negative impacts of attention-grabbing features. By limiting the number of emails or push notifications software sends to the user or simplifying the user interface to give users an easier and more comprehensive experience. This helps improve attention spans. 

Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, has spent the last 15 years measuring the attention span of office workers. From her research, employees have become so distracted that their attention span has decreased to be no longer than 40 seconds. That is an astonishingly small amount of time. “We are just conditioned to have short attention spans and if they’re not getting interrupted by something externally, then they essentially just interrupt themselves,” said Mark. 

“Workers cannot stay fixed on their tasks  for no more than 40 seconds!”

Apps designed to distract 

To highlight how bad things are now, Mark compared focus patterns today with an earlier study she carried out in 2004. Sixteen years ago, employees managed to stay focused for an average of 3 minutes. That’s a whole 450% more than the amount of time we can focus today. But why? What has caused such a dramatic decline in our attention?

Research indicates that there are two main causes for this worrying trend: external and internal distractions.

External distractions like the use of communication technologies, like Slack or Teams, has exploded in the workplace. Though these technologies solve the problem of instant communication and declutter inboxes, they don’t give employees a break. Employees often have mobile apps on their personal devices to ensure they don’t miss a beat – and they don’t. But at what cost? Constant reachability should not be the norm.

We’re also witnessing the effects of a broader shift in how we consume media. We take in the news or other information in small, digital bits, while content is designed with click-bait headlines all of which ensure we distract ourselves while scrolling through social media. 

But today, distracting technology isn’t just in apps or on web pages. The proliferation of other kinds of devices also opens up many more possibilities to divert our attention.  Smartwatches vibrate and use audible alerts. Smart speakers like Alexa or Google Assistant speak to us to make sure we’re up to date with our daily tasks. Many employees also bring their personal phones to work, opening up a whole other can of worms that bring distractions from our private lives into the workplace. 

The most worrying trend of all is the increased effects of internal distractions. Employees frequently become distracted by themselves. When working on something, without any external trigger, a thought will remind them of another task, and they suddenly move to do something else. Research shows that this constant switching between tasks without being prompted occurs just as much as with any external trigger. 

“We are conditioned to have short attention spans and if we’re not getting interrupted by something externally, we interrupt ourselves.”

But what can we do about it?

“Good design gives users agency and control over their actions.”

The end goal is to design software that allows users to maintain a steady focus and a healthy workflow. To do this, it’s crucial to understand how an app’s features can be designed to be less disruptive and limit unnecessary notifications on devices. 

Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin argue that while there are many expert software user researchers working today, few adhere to the fundamentals of good User Centered Design (UCD) principles — those principles include using simple and natural dialogue, letting the user take charge and presenting information clearly.

Harris and Raskin suggest that it would be beneficial for many designers to go back and relearn UCD’s basics to ensure good design that gives users a greater degree of agency and control over their actions. 

Ignore the fads

Today, it’s all about the next new thing. Everyone loves a shiny new toy and technology is no different. But that clearly is perpetuating the distraction problem rather than solve it. Instead of developing features aimed to satisfy the latest trend, the focus should be on the long-term goals — promoting increased productivity and better working conditions. 

An example of a software vendor that has done this is Basecamp, the popular online project management tool. When the chat-based tool Slack emerged (and caused companies like Microsoft to develop its Teams product in competition), Jason Fried, Basecamp’s founder deliberately sat tight. At the time, he cast a critical eye over group-chat technology with an analogous swipe saying, “Like a sauna or a hot tub, it feels good for a while, but it’s unhealthy to stay too long.”  

5 ways to reclaim attention  

The Silicon Valley solution has always been to throw more technology at the problem. In this case, it is not more, but different technology (and some personal boundaries). By designing your software to truly follow the UCD principles, keeping the user’s productivity in mind, you’ll ensure your clients’ workforce stays focused, productive and ultimately drives ROI.   

But other than technology, there are also benefits to being mindful of your own focus. Limiting the internal distractions is important to allowing yourself to limit the external distractions. Here are five simple steps to help you can use and pass onto your employees to help them stay focused.    

1. Be conscious of what you’re doing

We all do it. Our personal phones are next to us as we work throughout the day. Our Slack or Teams notifications come into our screen while we work on other tasks. As hard as it is, being present in your work will allow you to maintain the focus you need to stay productive. Being mindful of the fact that you have the ability to get distracted is a huge step to reclaiming your own attention and promoting your employees to do the same.

2. Turn everything off

Or at least mute it. We get that communication channels are there to connect you. And you don’t want to miss important notifications but to stay focused and productive, it’s worth minimizing whatever is likely to distract you. 

3. Don’t distract others

Be mindful of how you contact your colleagues. Depending on the urgency, it’s helpful to understand the best methods to use to contact them. If something isn’t urgent, choose the least invasive method. Why use real-time chat that demands an immediate response? Instead, send an email with the subject line ‘Not Urgent’. Alternatively, if it is urgent and you need to contact someone immediately, chat platforms like Slack or Teams are a great way to quickly get quick information you need. You have the ability to call on these platforms as well, which can be useful to have a face-to-face conversation instead of waiting on a text response. However, before calling them, make sure to ask for their permission first. Everyone has their own preferred methods of communication and their own schedules. Being courteous goes a long way.

4. Don’t send spam!

Think carefully about the recipients of your message. Make sure the message is relevant to them before pressing send. As a rule of thumb, include as few people in a message as possible. Though it can be helpful to ensure visibility into a discussion, some people don’t need all of the information upfront (and likely won’t even look at it unless requested).

Always consider who needs the information, not who might be interested. Resist CC’ing others if your message does not require their direct attention or response. 

5. Use targeted instead of mass communication

Resist mass communication announcements such as large email lists (especially if they are connected to a push notification system) unless there is a clear business need. Ensure people have a way to deliver the right messages, to the right people, at the right time. 

Now is the time to refocus

Collectively, we need to reduce how much we are distracted at work. Distractions and low productivity levels are simply not sustainable from a business growth perspective. The amount of time wasted doing things that aren’t a priority or are unrelated to the tasks at hand negatively impacts productivity and efficiency. Irrelevant emails and messages disrupt workflows, get us out of the zone, and increase the amount of time it takes to complete a task.

As the research shows, our attention spans are woefully low and, unfortunately, it’s getting worse. As Tristan Harris says, ‘“When our attention breaks so chronically and so pervasively, we’re not even noticing the full toll that it takes on us.”

“When our attention breaks so chronically and so pervasively, we’re not even noticing the full toll that it takes on us.”

How much more should we let it continue before our productivity is irreparably damaged?

Maximo Castagno

Maximo Castagno

Chief Product Officer. I’m a sociologist designing for humans since 1998.