By Amy Blankson – The HBR.org
Give them permission to ignore email for a while.
In our always-on culture, employers expect workers to be reachable and responsive at all times. However, research shows that constant connectivity may be counterproductive when it comes to engagement and productivity levels.
Today’s smartphone users check their phones 150 times a day, which is the equivalent of spending 2.5 hours a day just opening and closing the phone. A single text message, which takes approximately 2.2 seconds to read, can double error rates on basic tasks; even worse, workers find that it takes an average of 11 minutes to get back into the flow of the previous task. Our phones have become compulsions, rather than tools of efficiency.
The long-term impact of distraction on productivity may very well outweigh the benefits of added efficiency. Former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris explains that we are battling an attention economy in which developers and advertisers are incentivized to hijack our attention. Their strategies are working. Today 26% of smartphone users are almost constantly online, checking their phones for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.
To overcome, or at least counterbalance, the effects of the attention economy, employers can build upon proven practices for fostering a positive digital culture:
Create quiet spaces for mental recharging.
Even the most gregarious extroverts need downtime to work. Designate a space for employees to step away from work and devices to just be and think. Whether you install nap pods like Google, meditation pods like Cigna, or just set aside a corner with comfy pillows, having space for downtime helps employees to activate their neural default mode network, which plays a crucial role in chunking information and connecting disparate ideas. According to a survey that I conducted in conjunction with Embassy Suites, Homewood Suites, and Home2 Suites by Hilton, 89% of people believe changing their work environment throughout the day gives them a positive boost. (Disclosure: I was a paid consultant on this study.)
Encourage phone-free breaks.
Despite workers’ desire to get away from their devices, more than half turn to their smartphones during downtime, even though research shows that employees who take their phones on breaks feel less restored and less productive after returning to work. A 2019 study of more than 4,000 employees worldwide found that “less happy” workers are about 57% more likely to spend their lunch breaks using social media, whereas “happier” workers are about 275% more likely to take a leisurely lunch with friends. Further, a study of 450 workers in Korea found that individuals who took a short work break without their cell phones felt more vigor and less emotional exhaustion than individuals who toted their cell phones along with them on their breaks, regardless of whether they actually used the phone. For extra benefit, encourage employees to make the most of their breaks by practicing positive habits (journaling, writing down things they’re grateful for, meditating, doing a random act of kindness, moving around, or connecting with colleagues) that will refuel them for the day.
Set the social script for communication.
Many employees feel compelled to respond immediately when an employer reaches out, even if communication comes after work, over the weekend, or even on vacation. 55% of American workers reported checking their email after 11 PM; 44% of cell phone owners have slept with their phone next to their bed, because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night. Leaders can create a more positive digital culture for employees by explicitly setting the policy on when and how employees are expected to respond. Companies such as Deloitte are beginning to create “team charters” to document communication preferences and expectations.
Empower employees to block out focus time.
Amid the constant din of meetings and emails, many employees feel that they lack the uninterrupted time to actually get their work done. Employees who get even 55 minutes of time to themselves report feeling more energized (56%), friendlier (53%), funnier (23%), and even smarter (22%). To empower employees to be their most productive selves, encourage them to block out chunks of “focus time” on their calendars. They can even set up a short-term auto-responder explaining what they are doing and when they will be back (“I’m stepping away from my email to finish this project. I’ll be back in one hour.”). This small gesture communicates a sense of respect to other team members, but also signals that they value doing good work.
By actively cultivating both mental and physical spaces within the workplace, employers can reduce distraction and drive long-term engagement. It’s time to give employees a (real) break and, by doing so, unlock the full potential of your workforce.