Technology has undoubtedly improved our work lives.
We can connect with our colleagues around the world at just about any time. Intranets make it easy to share data across our organization. And the internet provides instant answers to nearly any question we can think to ask.
But being connected 24/7 can have some serious side effects—especially when it comes to our professional lives.
Even though he was in his eighties by the time the internet was mainstream, American economist and political scientist Herbert A. Simon captured the concept of technology overload perfectly: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
The symptoms of “technology overload” certainly feel familiar to us. Here’s a closer look at how they’re really affecting our employees and how we can minimize the negative impact as workplace leaders.
The Negative Effects of Technology
Before we discuss the ways to wage war on technology overload, we need to talk about why it’s so important.
Unfortunately, the expansion of technology is the primary reason the idea of work-life balance has all but disappeared. Instead, technology has ushered in the concept of work-life fluidity. And while an “always-on” culture may increase productivity in the short-term, employees will quickly reach the point of diminishing returns.
The never-ending stream of information enabled by technology can lead to something psychologists call “cognitive scarcity” — a feeling of decreased attention, cognition and self-control. Under conditions of cognitive scarcity, it’s more difficult to adequately process information. As a result, employees experience an inhibited ability to pay attention, make good decisions and adhere to a schedule.
To compensate for this loss of productivity, employees will attempt to work faster. However, not only does this lead to employees feeling more stressed and frustrated, but it can also have disastrous consequences for your organization. When employees rush through important decisions and tasks, they’re more likely to make costly mistakes.
Technology can have other negative effects on employees, including:
- Reduced physical activity and poor eating habits
- Poor sleep
- Feelings of isolation and a lack of employee engagement
- Greater opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding
- Greater anxiety and depression
These issues can impact anyone, but they can be particularly damaging to employees who work remotely.
The Cure: A Strong Digital Culture
To minimize the negative impact technology can have on employees, workplace leaders need to be proactive. That means setting expectations about the use of technology and ensuring employees are using it to their advantage, not to their detriment. Microsoft’s 2018 report, Digital Culture: Your Competitive Advantage, discusses the impact of an organization’s approach to workplace technology on the engagement, empowerment, creativity, collaboration, innovation and productivity of its workforce.
Over 20,000 employees were asked to evaluate the “digital culture” of their company.
Digital culture is defined as the “shared, underlying, and deep-rooted basic assumptions, values, beliefs, and norms that characterize how an organization encourages and supports technology use to get work done in the most effective way.”
A strong digital culture is one where:
- Employees are given technology support and training
- The workforce has on-demand access to information
- Managers support and promote technology adoption
- The organization considers employee health and wellbeing when making decisions about technology
- Company leaders clearly communicate the role of technology within the organization
Building a strong digital culture is the ultimate cure for technology overload.
Companies that prioritize a healthy digital culture recognize that technology in the workplace should be a tool that enhances communication and collaboration, not a burden that restricts creativity or creates added stress.
According to the results of Microsoft’s survey, businesses with strong digital cultures outperformed organizations with weak digital cultures in terms of every key performance indicator. For example, as many as 20 percent of employees who work at a company with a weak digital culture say they don’t feel productive at all. However, at companies with strong digital cultures, only 8 percent of employees made this claim.
Just 14 percent of employees at organizations with weak digital cultures feel innovative. But in companies with strong digital cultures, nearly 40 of employees say they felt highly innovative. And in companies with a weak digital culture, less than 10 percent of employees claim they feel empowered. Conversely, almost half of all employees at organizations with strong digital cultures report high levels of empowerment.
In a strong digital culture, employers regularly revisit these four questions:
- Does our company have a set of principles and best practices for using technology? E.g., Are employees encouraged not to answer emails outside of work hours?
- What processes are in place to measure our workforce’s level of satisfaction with workplace technology?
- Does our company’s use of technology support the health and wellbeing of our workforce?
- Are there opportunities to reduce the number of technologies employees need to use?
Employers who support a strong digital culture also encourage employees to use a digital detox strategy to help combat technology overload.
Here’s a great example from Deloitte:
- On Monday, unsubscribe from all unwanted emails and unfollow anyone you don’t know on social media.
- On Tuesday, turn off push notifications and relocate any apps you haven’t used in the past month into one folder.
- On Wednesday, buy an alarm clock to replace the clock on your phone. At night, charge your phone somewhere besides your bedroom.
- On Thursday, don’t look at your phone until you get to work.
- On Friday, keep your phone on silent and out of sight during breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- On Saturday, stay off social media for the entire day.
- On Sunday, turn off your phone and/or take off your smartwatch for at least eight hours.
While you may associate the phrase specifically with food, “Everything in moderation” is a great approach to workplace technology, too. It’s your responsibility to ensure you and your employees have what they need to be successful — and that includes free time.