It’s hard to remember a time when technology wasn’t such a vital part of our lives. For many people, from the moment they’re woken up by the alarm on their mobile phone to sending those final emails before bed, the pull of tech runs right through their day.
For good or bad, technology has come to shape our modern lives and constant connectivity means we’re now always plugged in, whether to our friends, the news and, increasingly, to our work. Yet, this overstimulation could be damaging our ability to concentrate, with many of us finding it harder to switch off.
Governments and businesses have recognised the “right to disconnect” and are taking action: in 2017, France passed a law giving employees of companies great than 50 people the legal right to ignore emails outside working hours. The same year, a similar law was passed in Italy and the Philippines. Although Germany does not have such legislation, many companies including Allianz, Volkswagen and Daimler have actively taken it upon themselves to limit the amount of connection their employees have when not at work. Recognising the importance of disconnecting seems especially important as the ultra-connected Generation Z and Millennials dominate today’s workforce, increasing the risk of burnout and other stress-related illnesses.
Our dwindling attention spans
Technology, and more specifically its ability to keep us constantly ‘on’ and connected, is making us tired. Scientists at the University of Yonsei in Korea found that the increased energy required to respond to the constant flow of information is leading to physical and psychological strain. This is something that Professor Chris Lee has explored in his book ‘How Tech is Making Us Tired’, writing that: “We need to develop an awareness about the varied impact of technology in our lives. It is not always positive—a sign of progress.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the physical and psychological stress of tech fatigue can impact our working as well as personal lives, leaving us less motivated, alert and interested.
Another major side effect of tech fatigue is the shortening of attention spans. A study from researchers at the Technical University of Denmark suggests “the collective global attention span is narrowing due to the amount of information that is presented to the public.” With technology constantly feeding us new information, our ability to focus is decreasing. There are problems associated with this across all aspects of our lives. How we learn, how we interact with others and how we work can all be impacted by shortening attention spans.
The productivity problem
While people and the companies they work for may benefit from the various efficiencies of technology, its impact on productivity can be a serious issue – and not just for individuals, but for business at large. For example, having our phones on hand can mean that the moment our mind wanders from the task in front of us, rather than re-focussing we instead indulge our distractedness. Dr Glenn Wilson conducted research into the impact of this on intelligence and found persistent interruptions and distractions at work can decrease our IQ score by an average of 10-points.
One solution to this problem is creating spaces in work environments that are designated ‘tech-free’. Recently, several employers, including the Last Word café at the British Library, have taken steps to ban or confiscate phones at work to improve productivity and focus. Ex-Google employee Tristan Harris has gone so far as to label tech addiction an ‘existential threat’. People are starting to draw a correlation between the distractions of technology and productivity problems. Yet, many find the idea of their employer confiscating a personal mobile phone deeply troubling. As fewer people become tied to physical offices, it’s also clear this solution is simply unworkable.
Rather than employers confiscating phones directly, a voluntary approach to tech-addiction is likely to be more successful. The best workspaces offer break out areas or quiet zones, where people can escape their desk and instead engage with one another face to face.
Physical spaces of separation could help solve the other productivity issue technology is causing: an inability to switch off from work. Turning to flexible workspaces could help those who struggle not to bring work home with them by separating their home and work lives with a designated space for work that is away from the home.
For those who freelance or regularly work from home, flexible workspaces provide a place to focus on work, while mentally separating home as a place to switch off and instead enjoy leisure and relaxation. A recent Deloitte report found that ‘the value derived from the always-on employee can be undermined by such negative factors as increased cognitive load and diminished employee performance and well-being’. It’s clear that workplaces need to find solutions to the issues of technology overload for the sake of their business and personal growth.
Keeping barriers with technology
Even though technology has brought huge benefits to companies and their employees, there’s clearly a need to find the right balance. Being on call 24/7 can leave people less productive and the damage to our attention spans has the potential to negatively impact all aspects of our lives, not just at work.
Flexible workspaces and designated tech-free zones are just two of the solutions to this modern-day issue, helping people to separate working hours from non-working time, and minimising distractions while actually working.
In the coming years, if our tech-dependence continues to grow, employers will need to consider further boundaries it can put in place to help keep our minds work at their optimum capacity – for the sake of employees and the businesses they run.
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