Let’s pay attention to our attention
Can’t focus? It’s not your fault. In this “Corona Year,” we know that people are working more hours and attending more meetings. We have to work harder to “seek balance.” This fact inherently means we as individuals have less time and focused attention to dedicate to the deep thinking work that gives us energy — not to mention the “asynchronous work” that gets the job done.
Our beloved devices and applications, the portals through which we make our livelihoods and connect beyond our “Quaranteams,” are ruled by the “attention economy.”
In his Oxford University thesis, ex-Googler, James Williams defines the digital attention economy as “the environment in which digital products and services relentlessly compete to capture and exploit our attention.” Recently flung into popular consciousness (aka Netflix) by The Center for Humane Technology, the film, The Social Dilemma is a compelling introduction to this infrastructure of persuasive design.
We pay for the privilege of using the internet with our time and attention. If human attention is a finite resource, infinite inputs (from Tiktok to Hinge to Slack) render our attention scarce and our personhood diminished. There’s a lack of reciprocal energy and adrenaline when we only communicate through a screen. We’re irked, we’re anxious, but the phrase I find most helpful is the idea that we’re becoming emotionally malnourished.
Balance is the aspect of working life with which I struggle the most. How does one square the impulse to constantly work with the very real human need to seek balance? Balance is the state of equanimity at which humans, from Indigenous traditions to ancient Buddhism, have been striving to live since our species existed. Yet we’re rarely outwardly rewarded for modeling balance. We hear aspirations like work/life balance, work/life integration, but the reality of remote work-life needs new language and new, explicit boundaries.
What are we testing to work toward focus and digital wellness?
1. Establish routine
A recent survey by Slack suggests that “employees are longing for the stability and predictability that office-centric routines once provided.” Humans crave certainty and while working life during a global pandemic cannot squarely provide that, there are ways in which an organization can help establish routines for individuals.
Action as an organization:
Examine your team’s communication and collaboration behaviors via a tool audit and survey. This will help you gather qualitative and quantitative data to develop best practices and standardize how (which channels) and when (with what frequency) your organization shares information. After the audit, establish your team’s internal use case for each type of communication and agree upon “rules of the road” for how you engage with each tool.
Develop shared, consistent language (and visual prompts like emojis in Slack) that indicate the urgency of an ask or request. For example, to alleviate the “always on” mental load, Guru established a shared definition of how we use Slack. We agree that Slack is an asynchronous communication tool. This shared understanding prompts us to assume good intent and strive for balance.
Note: At Guru we've created our own custom emojis to encourage
adoption of these new guidelines!
Partner with your leadership team to ensure they are bought in, modeling and experimenting with the best practices and standards you’re testing. When your team sees consistency coming from the leadership team, change management will accelerate.
Action as an individual:
Reexamine a deliberate personal routine. Do you roll out of bed and check your phone before you brush your teeth? In the beginning of COVID, there was much talk of optimizing WFH setups, getting dressed before logging on, and getting outside for afternoon walks. But how many of us can say that we’ve kept up with those idealistic mid-March routines we’d mapped out for ourselves? Companies like Microsoft suggest bringing back your commute.Take a few minutes to write out and reassess what nourishes you and drains you on a daily basis.
Going a step further, I’d urge us to observe our routine beyond the basics (eating, sleeping, breathing) and experiment with creating a routine around how we engage with technology. What boundaries can you establish (and subsequently communicate with your team) that allow you to create focused work time? Catherine Price, author of How to Break up with your Phone in 30 days offers a Screen/Life balance challenge which not only urges us to examine our relationship with our devices, but the news cycle accessible through those devices.
2. Allow for pause
As an organization:
Look to leadership to model behavior by actually taking time off. Guru leadership also happens to model this in Slack statuses (i.e. 👶kid time).
Encourage company-wide, transparent information sharing and communication etiquette so that when people do return from a pause (a vacation or a nap) they’re not out of the loop.
As an individual:
Yes, take time off to recharge (remove work communication tools from your phone perhaps). But also pause in your micro-moments to foster digital wellness. Go outside and move your body, look up from your phone (leave it behind if you can), and exercise in a way that feels good to you.
Take a deep breath before sending a message. Pausing before you post a message or send an email, encourages a culture of response vs. reaction.
3. Seek to understand (before you seek to solve)
As an organization:
Knowledge-Centered Service which posits that knowledge is an organizational asset, encourages us to "seek to understand before you seek to solve.” Seek to understand if the current imbalance of your collective is impacted by your communication and collaboration practices. Zoom is an incredible and necessary tool, and yet it can be psychologically draining if not managed with proper boundaries.
Set expectations at your organization around what constitutes a “good meeting.” Could the meeting be an email, a Loom video, or in our case, a Guru card? You can reduce the number of meetings and screen time if people know the objectives of the meeting before you’re all on the call.
As an individual:
Observe your reactions throughout the day to understand them. In the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, and in many texts not employed in corporate America, leaders aspire to respond vs. react. Reaction is instinctual and originates from a survivalist fight or flight mentality. Response, however, is conscious decision making based on an assessment of information (see the pause before you post suggestions in Rules of Road Card above).
For example, if I see a message from a colleague pointing out how a project on which I am working is problematic, my initial written response might be defensive or place blame. If I pause (and assume the good intent of my colleague) before jumping to reply, I can respond in a way that’s thoughtful and considered. Especially in a remote work world, we don’t have the opportunity to exchange and understand intention. Response promotes mindful action vs. rapid action. Mindful action is good for the employee experience and is good for revenue.
As an organization:
Seek diverse opinions, be transparent about financial and operational goals, your company decision making processes, and build an inclusive feedback loop. If you’re using a tool like Slack, post in public or shared channels. From an operational goal perspective, here’s an example of a template we use at Guru to collaborate on our company’s objectives and key results.
As an individual:
While many of us still quote the mantra of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” that lonely experience takes a real toll. According to a Stanford study, it turns out we’re actually more motivated to work on any given task when we’re collaborating with other people. In the conclusion of the study, the authors say, “Communication in general and teaching and learning, in particular, are inherently collaborative acts.” Just by talking to each other, we’re primed to gain the benefits of collaboration. Check out our blog post on how to harness the power of communication and collaboration to learn more.
Reclaiming our attention in a remote work environment through organizational values and personal strategies will allow us to create space for focused work, deep thinking, and ultimately improve the overall employee experience.