Are modern tools the enemy of our focus?

Overwhelmed worker at a desk.

We all work differently. We have different preferences of how we absorb information, learn new tools, or solve problems.

The way we work varies according to our role, our responsibilities and the needs of what we need to achieve each working day. Some people prefer time to gather information, ponder ideas and consider all the detail, to later provide analysis and insight.

A lot of great achievements in history have been completed by people in isolation and deep focus.

Having space for our thoughts is important for quality deep work (diver deeper into the writing of Cal Newport to understand this further). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport

Yet, we’ve been pushed into workplaces with noise, social politics and discomfort. There have been many struggles for introverts over the years in the modern workplace (pre-pandemic especially) and negative judgement of different personalities and working preferences (just read the work of Susan Cain for such detailed insight and information in this area.) Susan Cain – Quiet Revolution

While millions of dollars are spent on the design and layout, along with technology, for the modern workplace, many have found it to stifle innovation and creativity, along with having a negative impact on the productivity of many people.

What has been interesting in the last couple of years is the transformation driven by the remote work need from the pandemic and how this change has provided many wins.

Introverts have finally been able to flee the noise and distraction of the open plan offices and challenges of working side by side with extrovert colleagues.

Neurodiverse have been able to seal themselves in a home workspace much more aligned with their sensory needs, along with pulled away from the social challenges of the office, finding many benefits from the home office.

There are many other stories of people who have challenges with the modern workplace that are benefiting from the shift to their own work space at home.
While I know with this there are people who have suffered, and the work from home pivot from the pandemic is tough for many, my main point here is to focus on how the modern workplace negatively impacts many people.

We are continually expected to work out loud, collaborate in teams and participate in many ineffective meetings. We are expected to be lumped at a hot desk, plug in and produce high quality work with movement, noise, smell, distractions in this stripped bare work space that is supposed to work for any kind of person. All in one big open space. One big bucket of all of us with our different roles, goals, preferences and challenges. While actually, research has shown that better ideas are produced solo.

Susan Cain commented in a 2012 TED Talk:

“The key to maximising our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us”

The power of introverts | Susan Cain

That zone of stimulation varies so much across all of us and cannot be found in the average modern workplace.
With all these workplaces designed for extroverts the forced work from home globally due to the pandemic has found many wins.

I know people who have found a greater balance, focus and the optimal environment to produce great work.

With the shift to working at home, people could finally be in their head. Such satisfaction is found in a fresh cup of tea, your device in DND mode, and a goal achieved.

However…. Then come the beeps and alerts.

The greatest enemy to productivity and to perhaps our sanity can be our amazing technology.

A simple beep or pop-up can derail your train of thought and sever the progress of ideation.

One of the biggest complaints I encountered last year in focus groups and workshops with employees was ‘too many things’ and not knowing what to do next. There are too many alerts and in different apps. People are overwhelmed and tired, and the technology can add to the burn out.

So, what comes next?

Do we leave people at home, shut off from the world with the tech disabled?

Is this the answer to achieving innovation and more success in their role?

What about all we gain from technology?

Shared tasks in Planner or a SharePoint List allow structure, a path to follow, dopamine hits when you tick things complete.

Workflows and automation reduce repetitive mundane tasks and allow time for deeper thinking.

Polls and Forms collect data, saving time, creating easier analysis and capture to progress planning or insights.

Chat allows for quick contact to progress an action, remove confusion, enable quick check in and just connect people.

And then there’s those beeps and pop-ups. Well, they drive us. They save us from diving down into a deep rabbit hole in our mind and remind us to resurface and progress something, attend something and just drive our day.

While the technology can drive people crazy, and feel at times like it is the enemy, I find this fear and frustration usually comes from misuse. The answer is greater awareness and education. And workplace culture shift.

We need to harness the technology and teach people to configure it to suit their needs. We also need stronger ways of working, and as some have labelled a ‘collaboration contract’, or simply just better boundaries and workplace etiquette.

I tell people to own their day, and their working week.

  • Master the notifications
  • Carve out your time to do deep work
  • Structure your calendar to suit your work style
  • Use your status to drive our focus and show people you are not available
  • Decline meetings in those hours where you do your best thinking solo

Let the deep thinkers have space for their thoughts and time to sustain their drive and activities.

For those that flick between lots of small tasks, use the apps, tick off activities, but work out how to get what you need from others without breaking their focus and impacting each other.

We need a space for all preferences, and for the technology to drive success with this not to drive us nuts.

As we all move back to the office, some people will race in desperate to socialise and be out for lunches, drinks and super energised. Others will cling to their work from home life. And that’s ok. Hopefully in this tech hyped working world we can find a middle ground for all our preferences and the tools to service us in a way to drive our working week and serve our needs.

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