Being a manager in the time of Tik Tok and work from anywhere means accepting that in every meeting, attention strays after only a few minutes. Everyone is multi-tasking — probably even you.
Tracking how quickly people disconnect and guessing what they might be doing becomes itself a way to quell the anxious hyper-active mind trapped in our now stationary, low-stimuli physical world.
However, productivity and happiness require concentration and quiet time. To work, live and make good decisions we need to be able to think critically, communicate well, share thoughts, discuss concepts, collaborate, engage, and innovate.
In January 2017, French workers in companies with more than 50 employees won the “ right to disconnect.” Should we claim the right to focus for ourselves today? Or should we just adapt to being constantly tethered to and distracted on our laptops or phones?
Brave New World
For decades, the lines between our physical and technological worlds have been blurring. Prior to the pandemic, this brave new connected world was already straining our capacity to keep up, as we checked email at our kids’ recitals, and shopped and online dated at work.
The costs have been clear for years.
In late 2016, The New York Times warned: “ Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It,” arguing that our social media usage was fragmenting our thoughts, limiting our intellectual independence, and disrupting the creative process. Increased use of technology was also linked to reduced empathy, as smartphone use led us to shortchange in-person relationships. The same year the Times cautioned us about our social media use and a study found that the average smartphone user checks their phone more than 150 times per day.
The following year the CEO of Netflix cited sleep as his main competitor and the CDC declared lack of sleep a national emergency and a Rand Corporation study showed workers sleeping less than six hours a night would love more than a week of work due to absenteeism or presenteeism-being at work but unproductive-per year.
Today, the interruptions come in stereo-on phones and on work laptops, which duplicate the smartphone’s functions. In a work-from-home environment, this is a recipe for disaster. The problem is not just the frequency, but the nature of the interruptions. It is not just our constant toggling between our personal and professional lives. Today, technology interrupts both our personal and professional lives in many different ways.
New World, Old Habits
It used to be unacceptable to take a personal (or even professional) call during a meeting. Now we think nothing of emailing while on Zoom. Our work cultures, in which measurable output serves as proxy for performance, reward this behavior. If you are not responding, you are not working — not just during the work day, but all the time. When we give up control and do not multi-task, we fall behind and even feel symptoms of withdrawal.
We are in this situation because it has been hard for many of us to relinquish our habits from the analog world. We are used to holding face-to-face team meetings several times per week, for example. But as we log in to Zoom, we are unwittingly importing the speed and temptations of the digital world into the analog world we are trying to emulate. We are stuck in the worst of both worlds.
The Right to Focus. Or not.
So what do we do? One option is to just throw up our hands and accept that there is no competing with the siren song of dopamine. In this scenario, we explicitly tell ourselves and others that we don’t need to pretend to be paying attention. This would reduce the stress of pretense and enable us to move beyond perhaps antiquated forms of politeness and analog behavior. We wouldn’t just spontaneously disengage from someone we were talking to on the street and walk away without saying goodbye, but perhaps we can get used to it online. After all, we have relaxed the way we look, too.
A second option might be relearning how to communicate and generating entirely new methods. Perhaps meetings are not the best way to convey information, but Zoom “hang-outs” and work in parallel are. Or perhaps to transmit information, we should send short audio or video snaps with updates for others to consume when it’s best for them.
Finally, we could fight back and tailor the workload to give employees the time they need to be able to single-task-should they still want and be able to.
The “Short Sprint” Management Method
Or we change tack entirely. The most precious resource that every manager has is time. Time cannot be recovered; tapes cannot be rewound. An environment in which everyone in the ecosystem is distracted calls for managers to tackle every engagement like a world-class sprinter. This does not mean conducting exhaustive track workouts daily to shave millisecond off their 100-meter or 200-meter time. It means deploying such hyper-focus to every engagement, initiative, and project and deep work to think about the arc of each.
To do so effectively, the manager must bucket chunks of time and manage transitions. For example, the current COVID environment has caused leaders to be even more empathetic towards the individual realities of friction that was not normally observed. Each meeting begins with a thoughtful 5- to 15-minute personal update to ease into work. To sustain this, the manager must also be a facilitator. That is bucket one.
Bucket two is critical, the manager must establish the bottom-line up front.
1. Why are we meeting?
2. With what do we want to leave this engagement?
3. What is the critical task?
4. When will we follow-up on the assign task?
Although managers are well versed in generating agendas, the blurred nature of how we currently work has caused many managers to create more touch points with less actual work being accomplished. The quantity of meetings is a poor proxy for productivity.
Effectiveness in the new normal will be measured by those who can get things done while simultaneous creating spaces for thoughtful collaboration. Such collaboration requires focus and commitment muscles that are currently atrophying.
We welcome feedback and ideas. Some of our other posts provide advice on Piercing the Fog of Zoom and leading with low visibility; helping teams with Making Music in Parallel while WFA; and, how to be ok with Going Back to Move Forward. Through it all, y ou can also Use Systems Thinking to Stay on Goal.
Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Business Administration in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development to enable more effective ways to maximize the integration of Technology, People, and Processes throughout an organization.
Carin-Isabel Knoop leads the Harvard Business School’s research and case writing group and has helped HBS faculty members write more than 200 case studies on organizations and managers around the world. At night she thinks about how to make their challenging lives better. This led to research and publications in the area of mental health in the workplace and an interest in human sustainability. She is a pragmatic idealist and fanatic postcard writer.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.