Is information overload killing employee engagement?
There is no doubt that digital has had a major impact on employee engagement. It has helped businesses to connect with employees and, importantly, for employees to connect with their businesses. It has provided timely access to deep knowledge, widespread use of rich media, and it has opened new opportunities for dynamic dialogue allowing the voice of the employees to be heard and heeded.
But perhaps it also brings a fundamental challenge, an implicit imperative to keep doing more, faster and better. Very often with less. Fulfilling that expectation, and the associated level and pace of change required is getting harder. Maybe our appetite for communications in an always on, unlimited access world is exceeding our capacity to digest it. The information age could very easily be becoming the information overload age.
A quick trawl and aggregation of some research (online of course) reveals a revealing perspective on a day in the life of an average employee:
They will get about 120 e-mails and spend 28% of that day managing it
They will experience 50-60 interruptions each day. That’s one every 8 minutes and each one takes 5 minutes to deal with, leaving 3 minutes before the next one and 80% of those interruptions are considered trivial.
57% of interruptions come from either social media tools or switching between applications. They will check their mobile phone more than 85 times in a day accounting for over four hours of waking time over 150 if they are a millennial
They will attend about three meetings (half of these considered a waste of time).
And the impact this has:
- 40% of working day is unproductive
- 40% of workers believe it is not possible to succeed at work, make a good living, and have enough time to contribute to family and community
- 40% of professional men work more than 50 hours per week despite five decades of research proving beyond doubt that maximum productivity occurs at no more than 40 hours
- 80% of organisations believe their employees are overwhelmed with information and activity at work but less than 8% have programmes in place to deal with it.
Information overload is a very real issue for us as communicators, as in an overwhelmed system employees will develop and deploy their own defences. Employees may use selective reading, or just focus on what is understood and ignore what is not, or end up procrastinating despite best intentions not to do so. Or they may simply opt out.
This is not malice or laziness. These are coping mechanisms and part of being human. The simple fact is that our brains have a limited capacity for processing and retaining information. Combine that with all of the communications noise, disruption and always-on-hyper-connectedness that surrounds us and we are forced to massively multi-task. This is something that neuroscientist Daniel Letivin describes as “a powerful and diabolical illusion”
In the same article, Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, is quoted talking about ‘infomania’. He discovered that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, while an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by ten points. He also showed that the cognitive losses from multi-tasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot‑smoking or losing a night’s sleep.
Scientists have shown that as we receive information there is activity in the decision making parts of our brain, but there is a tipping point. If that incoming information exceeds a limit then, like a circuit breaker, those decision-making areas will just shut down and we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.
Just to compound things, academics have also discovered that if we don’t use the information that we learn immediately, we lose up to 75% of it from our memories and brains. In other words, a very real risk that all of the information and the time and effort needed to communicate potentially wasted.
In this digital world the dilemma is that it has never been easier to reach an audience, but it has also never been more difficult to get their attention. This is the context for any and all employee communications – it is the challenge within the challenge of any given brief.
Therefore, the first and fundamental part of any solution is to acknowledge the simple fact that employees are potentially being overwhelmed. The noise level of communications and information is at ear defender level and we need to be mindful that as communicators we are potentially part of the problem.
We need to appreciate the ‘busyness’ of business and the context of our communications within employees everyday lives. We need to find ways to experience the world as they do, to understand their point of view, their preferences, their concerns, their ideas.
In other words, the starting point is respect. Or, at least, not forgetting that we are human, too.
Phil Morley, is director of employee engagement at MerchantCantos.