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Can Deep Work and the Digital Workplace Coexist?

May 26, 2022 Digital Workplace
Laura Pike Seeley
By Laura Pike Seeley

Quick! How many tabs do you have open right now? When was the last time you were able to think deeply without a ping or notification? Did someone Teams message you while you were reading this intro?

At any given moment, your thoughts may be drifting, the desire to check your inbox rising. Is digital workplace technology keeping us from focusing on the high-value work we all hope to produce? 

Wading, Not Diving

The phenomenon of what bestselling author Johann Hari calls "stolen focus" has been the subject of a number of books, articles and podcasts, including his own book of the same name. According to Hari, our attention spans are shrinking, undermining our ability to connect with others and practice a mindful lifestyle. These concerns are echoed in Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains" and professor Cal Newport's "Digital Minimalism." In his books "Deep Work" and "A World Without Email," Newport similarly warns us of the devastating impact of a distracted life on our professional and intellectual lives.

According to Newport, deep work consists of "Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate." A concept closely related to deep work is "flow," a term coined by happiness researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter." This state, also known as being "in the zone," seems to transcend the passage of time and brings great joy and purpose to those who enter it.

Newport fears that modern knowledge workers are losing the ability to "go deep" and achieve a state of flow, an erosion that undermines true learning, innovation and professional success. Whether or not our collective attention spans are shrinking is up for debate, as is the notion that this is destructive to our minds and relationships. What doesn't appear to be up for debate is that the crux of this issue lies in our relationship with technology, particularly networking technologies.

Again, much has been written on the very real, very well-documented, arguably insidious plot of technology and social media companies to capture our attention. With an insatiable desire for our time, focus and energy, these titans of tech leverage centuries of research on habits, reward and even addiction to pull us toward our screens, into bottomless pits of hearts, likes and customized content feeds based on personalized consumer profiles.

Related Article: Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration

The Buzzing Digital Workplace

And what about our relationship with technology in the workplace? There's no question that the always-on, always-reachable nature of most workplaces, a cultural reality only exacerbated by the pandemic and the shift toward flexible work environments, is fundamentally enabled by our networked office tools. The inability to disengage from near constant email and chat messages, expressions of what Cal Newport describes as the "hyperactive hive mind," reduces our ability to concentrate — in a deep, lengthy, uninterrupted way — on the type of high-value work that will shape our careers and drive our businesses forward. In particular, Newport argues that constant context-switching and multitasking produces lower levels of competency in employees and reduced quality in their output.

But that's not all, according to Newport. By allowing employees to directly manage administrative tasks, such as time sheet submissions, invoicing and PTO requests, digital workplace tools have reduced reliance on administrative professionals in favor of a self-service model. The onus of these low-value tasks has shifted onto knowledge workers who are capable of high-value work, or would be, if they weren't so busy scheduling meetings and entering data.

What does all of this mean for those of us working in the digital workplace space? Are we doomed to develop, implement and deliver tools that will continue to erode the attention spans and high-value work of the teams we support?

Not so fast. In "Deep Work," Newport cites a 2012 McKinsey Study to note that the average knowledge worker spends over half of their week "engaged in electronic communication and internet searching." Taken at face value, this certainly sounds like yet more evidence that technology, including workplace technology, distracts and encourages workers to engage in low-value activities. But note that the latter statistic doesn't actually reflect time spent on "internet searching." Instead, the McKinsey study is referring to time spent "looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks." The study goes on to acknowledge that when well managed, internal messaging can become a searchable record of company knowledge and information that can reduce, by up to 35%, the time employees spend searching. The very study Newport selectively cites, tellingly titled "The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity through Social Technologies," illustrates the potential of technology to keep us from drowning in the shallows.

Related Article: The Speed of Work Today: More, Faster, Now

What Digital Workplace Pros Can Do to Protect the Silence

OK, so we aren't doomed. But we're not in the clear either. Our tools and the organizational culture they reflect and ultimately enable can add to the noise and static that distract and distress our employees, or they can reduce it. Let's talk about how digital workplace practitioners can tame the hyperactive hive mind, protect the time of high-value workers, and give them the space and tools necessary for deep work to occur.

DO: Simplify and Streamline Low Value Tasks

First, an easy one. User-friendly business applications can make it easy and incredibly fast to do administrative tasks, such as timesheet reporting and invoicing. Submitting a PTO request doesn't have to be onerous, as many well-designed talent management software applications readily demonstrate.

DON'T: Introduce New Tools for the Sake of It

Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Is it noise? Is it necessary? What problem does it solve? If you find yourself thinking that you should invest in a new technology largely because its UI makes it more appealing on the surface than the existing methods, think again.

DO: Use Technology to Strengthen Organizational Alignment

If your organization's intranet isn’t being leveraged to provide clarity into goals and strategies, now is the time to consider how leadership is offering transparency and alignment mechanisms. Formalized, trustworthy statements regarding guiding principles, values and OKRs provide teams a starting point for alignment. With alignment comes focus and with focus comes motivation and purpose. (And according to Csikszentmihalyi, achieving a state of flow requires a sense of purpose.) Furthermore, an organization working in tandem in pursuit of clearly articulated goals is more capable of developing clear roadmaps for many of their teams. These roadmaps, if followed, should reduce the number of fire drills and last minute requests.

DON'T: Rely on Technology to Drive Change

Remember, technology itself can't change human behaviors merely by existing within your digital workplace environment; it can only optimize existing habits. The evolution must come from the organization itself through careful change management strategies that leverage leadership and directly solve a business problem. Without the proper strategy, any new technological initiative will be perceived as distracting noise and will undermine future efforts to develop the digital workplace.

DO: Segment and Target Your Audience

What do you really want your employees to know? Broad internal communications can easily add to noise and distraction within the digital workplace. Use employee profiles to segment your audience meaningfully, by role, geographical location, interests, skills or any number of other relevant facets. Enterprise taxonomies and data governance will ensure that as resources, knowledge and information emerge, they can be delivered thoughtfully and effectively through the digital workplace. Continuous employee engagement will allow you to fine-tune your communications strategy based on a built-in discovery loop, a process that must be sensitive to the evolving needs of your business and audience. Ensuring that the right information — and only the right information — gets to the right person at the right time will vastly improve their working experience and will reduce unnecessary distractions.

Related Article: Employee Communications Management Platforms May Be Coming, But They're Not What We Need

DON'T: Pretend that One-Size-Fits-All

To ensure that technology doesn't distract from deep work, engagement with digital workplace tools and norms would ideally be self-initiated, rather than inflicted upon users. Remember, now more than ever, knowledge workers are demanding flexibility and control over their working lives and working environment. Individual needs may vary from team needs, which may diverge from organizational norms.

Email-free Fridays may serve one person well while making work less effective for another. Social communication tools — think Yammer — might frustrate one user while regularly connecting another to the exact resources and support they were looking for. Organizations can celebrate and converge around shared values, methods and touchpoints while offering plenty of latitude for knowledge workers to engage with the digital workplace as they see fit.

DO: Value Relationships and Risk-Taking

Though you should take care not to introduce noise, don't hesitate to define, discover and test new solutions to pernicious problems. Approach digital workplace challenges through a design thinking lens, and don't be afraid to test new initiatives and tools with a target group once the problem, and the motivation to address it, has been clearly established. By taking a supremely user-centered approach, digital workplace practitioners can be well positioned to identify unexpressed needs and frustrations. Don't be afraid to walk into those liminal spaces—that's where experiments thrive.

DON'T: Blame Technology for People and Organizational Challenges

An unexpected tap on the shoulder or a last minute meeting is as bad, if not far worse, than an unsolicited email, even one that crowds into an inbox alongside dozens of other unread messages. Asynchronous collaboration is the underpinning of the modern remote workplace, in which teams span time zones and even continents. Only behavioral norms and expectations can turn an email from a work-stopper that must be addressed posthaste into a helpful method for communicating whenever the recipient is able to emerge from flow state and respond. And only organizational alignment and process clarity can reduce the number of workplace fire drills that take priority over deep work.

Tools Are Neutral

Almost any tool with productive applications can be used to annoy or harm, and vice versa. For example, caller ID spoofing allows a caller to deliberately falsify information transmitted to caller ID display to disguise their identity. Sure, you can use it to make your kid think that Santa's on the line, or that Elsa is calling to wish her a happy birthday. Instead, as we all know, caller ID spoofing is primarily used to enable spam or fraudulent callers to regularly disrupt our workdays and downtime.

So it is with digital workplace technologies. Those of us delivering knowledge, resources and functionality to members of our organizations through the digital workplace administer tools capable of distracting, disorienting and irritating our users. Instead, we must direct our efforts toward improving the employee experience, aligning the organization and promoting positive change — toward enabling deep work, not undermining it.

About the Author

Laura is a corporate librarian and knowledge services professional currently serving as Knowledge Manager at HKS, Inc., a leading global architecture firm headquartered in Dallas. In this role, Laura helps guide the firm’s knowledge strategy by championing knowledge building and sharing, information organization and findability, and employee experience within the digital workplace.

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