Attention, distraction, and the social dilemma

Perhaps it’s the holiday season, with the predictable end-of-year, what-does-it-all-mean columns, and the growing sense of being pressed for time as we head for a few compressed days of egg nog and family away from the office. For whatever reason, in the past week I’ve seen a torrent of commentary about attention and distractedness, and the role that tools and space play. Over the past years, the desire to create workplaces that foster creativity and innovation — and maybe cut costs, as well — has led to the adoption of open-plan office layouts and an increased reliance on communication tools. In principle, open-plan workplaces and online chat are intended to make it easier to collaborate with coworkers, and to remain in a state of ‘ambient awareness’ of their coming and going. But workplace distraction is a major side effect of the increased noise and interruptions that seem to inevitably follow:

Rachel Emma Silverman, Workplace Distractions: Here’s Why You Won’t Finish This Article Even though digital technology has led to significant productivity increases, the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus. Open-plan offices and an emphasis on collaborative work leave workers with little insulation from colleagues’ chatter. A ceaseless tide of meetings and internal emails means that workers increasingly scramble to get their “real work” done on the margins, early in the morning or late in the evening. And the tempting lure of social-networking streams and status updates make it easy for workers to interrupt themselves. “It is an epidemic,” says Lacy Roberson, a director of learning and organizational development at eBay Inc. At most companies, it’s a struggle “to get work done on a daily basis, with all these things coming at you,” she says. Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

So our efforts to become more social — to remain connected, and to work cooperatively — have led to a social dilemma: we are decreasing the physical and virtual distance between people, but this has led to more noise and less signal. Interruptions and loud conversations pull us away from making progress on vital tasks, meetings break the day into chunks of time too small to accomplish big things, and the growing sense of powerlessness — a sense that we are unable to get ahead of the pressure wave of deadlines, follow-ups, and deliverables — can compound the problem as we grown anxious. At the cultural level, we can see this as another case where privacy is yielding to publicy (or publicness, as Jeff Jarvis styles it), and there are a great many ramifications arising from that shift. However, on a practical level, what can we do about this daily attention drain? One area of intense interest is the basic and core issue of noise. Making offices more open may cause more chance conversations, true, but they are also louder. A strange result of efforts over the past decades to make offices quieter — quieter heating and cooling systems, for example — makes voices carry farther:

John Tierney, From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz Many offices are now pin-drop quiet, thanks to silent ventilation systems, the demise of clattering typewriters and the victory of e-mail over the telephone. With so little background noise, cubicle dwellers cannot help overhearing anyone who does dare to start a conversation. Researchers at Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health have studied precisely how far those conversations carry and analyzed their effect on the unwilling listener: a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing and other forms of creative work. “Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory,” said Valtteri Hongisto, an acoustician at the institute. He found that workers were more satisfied and performed better at cognitive tasks when speech sounds were masked by a background noise of a gently burbling brook.

As a result, many firms are adding noise back. So-called ‘pink noise’ can be added to the background by unobtrusive speakers, a variant of white noise equalized to mask human speech. As a result, conversations carry less far, and the background noise is perceived more like a distant waterfall than a bar at happy hour. And it may be that the promise of open plan offices — like the increased chance of serendipitous conversations — isn’t coming true either:

John Tierney, From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz The original rationale for the open-plan office, aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate. But it turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one’s neighbor. “Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices.

Companies are instituting a wide range of policies to try to cut through the fog:

  • Aside from pink noise approaches, many open plan offices have created small private areas for twosy-threesy work groups to retreat to, or putting in ‘phone booths’: small enclosures for taking phone calls.
  • It is becoming commonplace for companies to declare email-less or meeting-less days on a regular basis, so that people can simply focus on work activities. Atos, the 75 thousand person IT consulting firm, has plans to phase out email, company wide, after determining that person were averaging two hours a day on email.
  • Some firms, like Intel, are instituting a policy for each person to allocate a chunk of time each week to ‘think time’ where they won’t attend meetings or respond to emails.

But ultimately these stresses are personal: we each have to juggle our way through each day, no matter what the noises and policies. Is there something else we can do, aside from using productivity approaches like zero mail box? It turns out that researchers have recently determined that meditation training increases our ability to multitask, and reduces the stress associated with that:

Maria Konnikova, The Power Of Concentration In 2012, researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting. They asked a group of human resources professionals to engage in the type of simultaneous planning they did habitually. Each participant was placed in a one-person office, with a laptop and a phone, and asked to complete several typical tasks: schedule meetings for multiple attendees, locate free conference rooms, write a memo that proposed a creative agenda item and the like. The information necessary to complete those tasks? Delivered as it otherwise would be: by e-mail, through instant messages, over the phone and in person. The list was supposed to be completed in 20 minutes or less. After the multitasking free-for-all, participants were divided into three groups: one was assigned to an eight-week meditation course (two hours of instruction, weekly); another group didn’t take the course at first, but took it later; and the last group took an eight-week course in body relaxation. Everyone was put through a second round of frenzy. The only participants to show improvement were those who had received the mindfulness training. Not only did they report fewer negative emotions at the end of the assignment, but their ability to concentrate improved significantly. They could stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently. While the overall time they devoted to the assignment didn’t differ much from that of other groups, they spent it more efficiently. They engaged, on average, in just over 40 discreet “tasks” — test-related behaviors that had a definable start and end time — spending approximately 36 seconds on each, in contrast to the 48 to 50 average tasks attempted by the other groups — with an average of only 30 seconds spent per activity. They also remembered what they did better than the other participants in the study.

With results like that, maybe Intel and Atos should be training their staff to meditate instead of focusing exclusively on calendar and email hygiene. What is increasingly clear is this: there are real benefits to increasing social density in the business setting. Collaboration and innovation does increase, and people are happier at work and more productive when they believe they have more friends at work. However, the side effects of increased social density — noise and interruptions, specifically — can’t be overlooked. We have to make room for work, both in the office and within our own minds, if we want to remain productive and unstressed. We have to understand the social dilemma and work at finding a personal balance between connection and distraction.

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