Linda Stone is a writer, consultant and former high-flying tech executive whose CV includes stints with Apple and Microsoft. Stone has coined a number of terms to explain some of the defining characteristics of the modern world of work, including continuous partial attention to describe the fractured nature of focus today and email apnea to describe how our breathing becomes shallow or momentarily stops when we type. (This is undesirable because it disrupts the flow of oxygen and can trigger a stress response.)
Stone was also one of the experts whose input helped shape an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) study into the macroeconomic cost of loss of focus. The study was sponsored by Dropbox, which is now a virtual-first company, so understanding how well distributed teams focus and cope with distractions is germane to its business model.
“Focused attention is one of the key components of a knowledge-driven economy,” the report says. “It is essential for creativity, problem-solving and productivity. But people’s concentration is increasingly disturbed by distractions ranging from real-time digital communications to noise and interruptions.”
Most people accept interruptions as part of their working day, but while these interruptions might seem insignificant, they’re not. They’re problematic because in order to do high-quality work, or find solutions to difficult problems, we need to concentrate for sustained periods. Sixty to 90 minutes is optimal. After that the brain starts getting tired.
Constant interruptions that split our attention raise stress and error levels and lower productivity or, as Prof Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, (who also made an input into the EIU’s study) puts it: “Every time a person switches tasks, they make a cognitive shift which depletes their mental resources.”
One of Mark’s main areas of research is how technology use affects us and its impact on attention span, mood, stress and the ability to multitask. In 2018, Mark looked at the influence a software tool that blocks workplace distractions had on how workers assessed their focus and productivity having used it for a week. Both focus and productivity were reported as significantly higher.
Interestingly enough, personality also played a role in the outcomes. Those with lower levels of conscientiousness and perseverance by nature fared better than those who are naturally diligent because the diligent employees simply worked longer without breaks resulting in increased stress.
The group that reported the greatest increase in focus during the experiment were employees that were more susceptible to being distracted by social media.
Despite positive results from using the blocking software Mark cautions against a blanket ban on all distractions.
“While many approaches assume that blocking distractions is beneficial, this may not be the case for all,” she says. “Some users may incur costs when distractions are blocked, especially based on research that shows the need for replenishing mental resources, which work breaks can provide.
“Studies also show that people can adapt to distractions. Distractions from phones also show unclear effects: shutting off notifications revealed positive effects (feeling less distracted) as well as negative effects (feeling less connected). Thus, it is not clear based on the literature that blocking distractions will indeed benefit people in real-world settings.”
What’s clear from the report is that loss of focus comes at a price. The EIU estimates that, on average, 581 hours per person are being lost annually due to distractions. That’s the equivalent of 28 per cent of total working hours. In monetary terms, it is costing US employers an estimated $34,448 (€30,173) per person in lost productivity.
It also found that, while sustained focus was needed for good outcomes, lengthy periods of deep focus were uncommon because of face-to-face interruptions and constant checking of email. On average, only half the 600-strong study group devoted more than one unbroken hour a day to a single task.
The disruption caused by email applied equally to those working from home or in the office. Almost a fifth said they checked their mail every few minutes while almost three-quarters checked it at least once an hour. And that’s the problem. It wasn’t the cumulative amount of time people spent checking their email that was disruptive, it was the frequency.
In an office environment, peripheral distractions such as phones ringing or overhearing conversations were also identified as disruptive, as were meetings whether live or virtual. The top distraction when working from home was easy access to food, TV and video games.
Ultimately, workers felt responsible for their own focus. However, the EIU points out that employers also have a role to play because some key causes of distraction are organisational.
For example, open-plan offices might make economic sense but they can be highly distracting and may inadvertently increase the use of email as people try to avoid face-to-face interruptions.
For those lobbying to stay working from home, the survey showed that knowledge workers are either equally or more focused when working remotely.
“Even with the stress and anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, 36 per cent feel either much more or somewhat more focused working from home as opposed to their office, compared with 28 per cent who feel less focused. Given that most people’s home environments are not set up to be workspaces, this casts a negative light on corporate offices that are theoretically designed to support productivity,” the report says, adding that few organisations are doing enough to protect and promote worker focus through initiatives such as automated scheduling, disabling mobile notifications and allowing people to silence their email.