Wherever You Work, You Must Have This
Focused attention determines the outcomes of our work and our lives. When we realize this, we will
Each week, businesses announce their policies and plans to return workers to offices, with no clear consensus.
Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said people are tired of working from home and want to get back to work, but added at an annual customer event that “the future of work is hybrid.”
Jack Dorsey, the CEO of both Twitter and Square, said he will allow employees to work remotely “forever,” and leaders like Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon commented in Bloomberg that work from home is an aberration, and not “the new normal.” A Microsoft-Wharton study found that almost nine out of ten leaders (88%) expect a more hybrid way of working in the longer-term.
But no matter what model of work a company chooses, there is one thing it must supply to workers: the conditions that allow for focused attention.
Why? Because when you are working home alone, or working at the office in teams, the single most important factor to achieving greater productivity and collaboration — and even human thriving — is the time and space to finish quality work that matters.
Digital Productivity: The Hidden Costs
One of the most significant and surprising outcomes of the past year was the growth in digitally-enabled productivity while working from home. Even though we battled fatigue working in isolation, or overwhelm working in a crowded household, many companies and sectors saw serious gains in productivity.
We eliminated commuting, office socializing, and extended travel, and did make up some of this ground in productivity. As a result, businesses have had to consider how to keep some of those gains in place
As noted by Mckinsey & Company, because of the adoption of new technology tools, “U.S. productivity in the third quarter of 2020 rose 4.6 percent, following a 10.6 percent increase in the second quarter, which is the largest six-month improvement since 1965.” While that sounds like good news, contextually, it’s more complicated: the number is actually a rebound from one of the biggest declines in productivity since 1947.
So, while there has been growth in productivity, largely due to adaptation to ubiquitous remote work adoption and the technology tools that enable it, there are hidden costs. As noted in the Harvard Business Review: distraction, overwhelm, stress, and lack of focus have skyrocketed due to other work-from-home side-effects.
Research from Microsoft and Wharton noted that while gains were made in productivity, some people lost their sense of purpose.
Leaders know there is a balance to strike with economic gains and human capacity. Companies are increasingly heeding the advice of global workforce experts like Deloitte who are calling for a shift in operations to a more human-focused design of work. From survive to thrive.
Executives I’ve spoken with say that mitigating the hidden costs of achieving greater productivity within a remote or hybrid digital workforce is one of the most critical challenges they face in this moment.
Attention requires discipline
The human brain natively manages attention. Apart from sleep, our attention is always in play. While your attention is always on, it has a lot of work to do to select the most important input, which means that when distractions abound, attention shifts. A lot.
While attention functions in a balance between the subconscious and your conscious, individuals have more control over it than we think. So do leaders of teams, who have the power to redirect focus to important matters. It just takes discipline. This discipline is what I call becoming “FocusFit.”
Below are three ways that you as a leader can grow your attention discipline, and work with your teams to help productivity rise, while managing the hidden costs and distractions of the digital workplace:
- Divide your time, not your attention: Our attention has become fractured. Today’s tech tools, even the products we use to be “more productive,” are actually designed to steal our attention. It’s up to leaders to protect human attention, value it, and direct it to those things that matter most. So, rather than dividing our attention among myriad distractions, leaders must compartmentalize their time and preserve focused attention. The most successful leaders block and protect this time ruthlessly. Now, extend this benefit to your team. Look at how they spend their time. Assess your meetings and reporting requirements. Review what you are asking your team to do in a week. Make sure you prioritize large swaths of time and space for people to get real work done. This will have more impact on productivity than almost anything else.
- Confer value by giving your undivided attention: Before you can influence someone, you must have their attention. Moreover, you have to be able to give them your undivided attention. As philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” In other words, don’t take anyone’s attention for granted. When your attention is split (checking your email during meetings, scrolling on your phone during one-on-one interactions), you send a dangerous message: that you're disinterested in the matter at hand. We are rolling off of a year without face-to-face conversations with our teams. Relational bank accounts are empty and people need to reconnect. Surprising research by Microsoft shows that Gen Z workers are hardest hit of all. The generation we thought gained meaning and connection through their phones are struggling the most in isolation. Don’t schedule another zoom meeting. Instead, call or meet each person on your team 1:1 and give him or her your undivided, unhurried attention.
- Reward responsibility, not responsiveness: Now is an excellent time for leaders to assess not only what was lost, but what needs to stay lost from our pre-pandemic workplace. Some protocols, rhythms of work and employee expectations may not have been growing productivity, but instead were a drain on it. Digital tools and communication have certainly helped productivity in incredible ways, but they also served as massive distractions in the workplace pre-pandemic, with pings happening on average every three minutes. Employees were rewarded for responsiveness and constant availability. This has damaged the kind of focused “unavailable” time that can lead to real creativity and breakthrough. Leaders can now step back and rethink the work itself and ask: Is this work worthwhile and moving us forward? Does my team have the time and space to be innovative? And am I rewarding them for responding quickly or for doing great work?
As leaders, it is time to move from being reactive to proactive — to value and protect our attention like we do our time.
Wherever our teams work, focused attention will remain the bedrock of success in the workplace. Focused attention drives productivity. Focused attention determines the outcomes of our work - and, ultimately, our lives. When we realize this, we will take much better care of it.
Curt Steinhorst is a focus expert, the author of the bestselling book, Can I Have Your Attention?, a global speaker, a regular Forbes contributor on leadership strategy, and founder of Focuswise, a consultancy that helps organizations develop focused and productive cultures.