5 strategies to help keep your sanity in a world of constant connectivity

You’re writing a report when your smart phone rings. Before you’ve had the chance to say hello, another five emails drop into your inbox – all asking you to do something, now. And that’s on top of the text messages, tweets and instant messages, all waiting for you to respond.

Does this sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone as virtually every office worker is facing the same pressures – we’re drowning in a sea of digital distractions.

According to our survey of more than 500 corporate email users, researching the impact that electronic distractions have on the workplace, employees are interrupted on average at least every fifteen minutes. For the majority of people, this means they’ll ‘waste’ at least an hour a day dealing with a variety of distractions, but interestingly the majority are digital.

An independent field study titled “Disruption and Recovery of Computing Tasks” by University of Illinois and Microsoft adds that, “participants spent on average nearly 10 minutes on switches caused by alerts, and another 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the type of interruption) before returning to focused activity on the disrupted task”.

You don’t need me to tell you that the impact of these digital distractions means your employees are having trouble completing work, thinking creatively and generally taking care of the responsibilities you’ve hired them for.

The perceived pressure to stay constantly connected has a lot to do with fear. Our electronic distractions research also showed that a third of survey respondents fear they will lose their competitive edge if they disconnect from their inbox for 30 minutes or less, and 20% felt in danger of losing the upper hand when cut off from email for just five minutes.

The result is many employees are taking drastic action – for example, some are continuing to respond to emails instead of paying attention in face to face meetings, others are still communicating when at home in bed.

Beyond managing this personal addiction to staying constantly connected, businesses can take steps to reduce digital distractions to a manageable pace — an immediate requirement for any organisation hoping to make use of the full potential of every employee while alleviating some of the pressure.

Here are five steps to get you started:

Step 1: Create policies to prevent distraction

Everything starts with a policy but, of course, not all policies are good ones. I’ve heard of organisations enforcing ‘no email Fridays’. Rather than solving the problem, all this does is defer the deluge until a later point in time and add additional stress.

Another knee-jerk reaction is to completely ban access to social networking tools which, when used correctly, can be beneficial for certain job functions such as identifying expert resources. Employees are more likely to break the rules rather than face the wrath of a disgruntled customer whose urgent request went ignored.

A better policy would be to disable email alerts, even if for only brief periods of the day, allowing individuals to focus their efforts rather than fixating on the small pop-up on the screen. Every organisation is different and, if the idea of a blanket policy just isn’t practical for your business, then perhaps creating ‘best practice guidelines’ would be more appropriate.

Don’t forget the rules of engagement. If you want 100% attention in face-to-face meetings, then mandate that employees must turn off mobile devices or the temptation to respond to communications may be too strong.

Another option is to limit the length of emails individuals are allowed to write, the number of recipients included on the distribution list, or the rare circumstances when a ‘reply all’ is appropriate.

Step 2: Train your staff to swim

This really is in tandem with creating policies that define what is and isn’t acceptable. Things you could consider are going back to basics with a quick refresher in diary prioritisation. The simple truth is that there is always more than enough work to fill the day, and it’s easy to get side tracked on the latest assignment that lands in your email unless you have clearly defined three or so actions that you’re going to take.

Likely, you will also need to train employees on how and when to use the myriad of digital devices, social collaboration and communication tools. There is a strong argument that email is not the right tool for editing documents, because you have to reconcile feedback from multiple parties, which invariably leads to document chaos.

Instead, upload it to a collaboration platform like Microsoft SharePoint or Google Docs and share a document link. That way, everyone works on the most current version of the document, without having to reconcile feedback from multiple people in various copies of the document.

And it’s not all about work. Something as simple as relaxation techniques can be very effective and demonstrate your commitment to allowing them to switch off.

Step 3: Reduce context switch

A New York Times report, titled “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price”, referenced research that found “Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour”. Primarily this is because the tools needed to complete a job are not organised by business task.

On average, people typically access six to nine platforms to get work done. A task might require people to toggle between their email client, various Microsoft Office applications, instant messenger services, web-based applications such as SAP, the CRM system and file servers such as Microsoft SharePoint.

Rather than relying on a hodge-podge of disparate systems and tools, organisations should consider aggregating collaboration and social channels into their users familiar work window, such as the corporate email client or CRM system.

Step 4: Respect employee downtime

Agreed, this one is slightly controversial but it may be the most crucial. We all talk about family values, respecting staff and understanding the value of downtime, but the sad reality is few actually practice what they preach. I’ve been on too many conference calls with people who are on holiday, both within our organisation and external parties, to know that the practice is rife.

There are numerous occasions when something is important but not everything is time sensitive. Just because you can reach someone doesn’t mean that you have to – or that you should.

Instead, develop a strategy for handling all but ‘life-threatening’ crises so when someone is out of the office, the world doesn’t stop turning. This could be a rule that clearly defines what constitutes a crisis that merits reaching out to a person after the office has officially closed.

Step 5: Set realistic expectations

Many service businesses have created the expectation that people will respond instantaneously to customer requests 24/7. The sad reality is, once you’ve set such an unrealistic expectation, you’ve already defeated any possibility of spending quality time resolving problems. So if you pride yourself on being a 24/7 business, then you need the right staffing levels to deliver.

The right steps

No one can tell you what the right steps for your organisation are. However, if your workforce is struggling to deflect digital distractions, then ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it easier. It’s time to grab the digital bull by the horns – so to speak, and implement strategies for your organisation that deflects its digital distractions thusly managing your information overload.

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David Lavenda is Vice President of Marketing and Product Strategy at Harmon. For the past 20 years, David has served as an executive for a number of high-tech companies. After completing a undergraduate degree in Physics, advanced studies in Electrical Engineering, and an MBA in Marketing, David co-founded Business Layers, an identity management company, serving as VP Marketing and Product Strategy from its inception until the company's successful sale five years later. Additional stints as VP of Marketing and Product Strategy for several successful high-tech companies followed. David is a technology expert blogger for Fast Company. He is also pursuing advanced studies in STS (Science, Technology, and Society) - focusing on the research of online behaviors.