Dec 28, 2020 Navpreet Kundal

What is the impact of digital distraction on remote employees and what can you do about it?

The pandemic has thrust us all into chaos demanding that we rely evermore on the right technology to keep businesses afloat and employees at work. One key element that some forget to consider is, how has this drastic change affected employees’ productivity, engagement and wellbeing?
What is the impact of digital distraction on remote employees and what can you do about it?

Most employees will know the feeling of being in the middle of writing an email when their laptop crashes or having to watch an IT admin remotely take control of their laptop for minutes on end. We know this is disruptive to end users, but how does it impact their ability to work, be productive and stay engaged?

Gloria Mark, a Professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, has researched and written extensively about the business cost of interrupted work. At our fall Work From Anywhere conference, she laid out her key findings that emphasize the role technology plays in shaping employee engagement and productivity, and the relationship between digital disruption and workplace burnout.

According to Gloria’s research, most employees spend far too much time multitasking. Gloria aptly points out that our very definition of multitasking is wrong. Humans can’t multitask because, simply put, we can’t focus on two things at once. Gloria instead refers to multitasking as the process of constantly context switching. The average length of screen time focus, for example, is 47 seconds, meaning every 47 seconds people shift to a different application or task. But what’s the impact of continuous multitasking?

  1. Performance slows
  2. People make more errors
  3. Employees suffer from a higher cognitive workload, basically meaning there are just a lot more things people have to keep in the minds when they switch their attention
  4. Interference from attention residue occurs, which means you’re still thinking about the thing you were just doing so you can’t focus entirely on what you’re doing right now
  5. Productivity slows
  6. People suffer from higher blood pressure
  7. Stress levels increase

It must be recognized that not all interruptions are bad, as they allow for mental breaks from the screen or a task. About half of interruptions are actually self-initiated for this very reason. However, unwelcome interruptions are detrimental to employee productivity. A large proportion of people lack the ability to stay focused when content switching unwillingly, resulting in higher levels of neuroticism and impulsivity.

How HR can reduce the impact digital distraction on employees

There are specific things organizations can start doing to reduce the impact of digital distraction on employees. HR leaders need to think about:

  • Formalizing employees’ right to disconnect. For most knowledge workers, work is home and home is work, inhibiting their ability to switch off. Over time, this will erode engagement levels and potentially lead to burnout. Formalizing workplace practices that enable employees to disconnect from their workplace technology will be key to warding off the negative impact of remote work.
  • Changing how employees communicate. When are emails necessary? Are we having too many meetings? Do employees spend far too much time searching for information? These are the types of questions HR organizations need to address. Seeking out ways to relieve the communication burden on employees will be integral to maintaining productivity among remote workers in the long term.
  • Design a work culture that is remote-first. We’ve all experienced those moments when you grab a coffee in the office kitchen and are enticed into a conversation with your colleagues and learn about a cool new project, share the latest gossip, or work together to resolve a particularly prickly problem. This doesn’t happen when you are working from home. For fear of being out of the loop, employees will seek out these interactions in whatever way they can, even when the physical walls of the workplace have dissolved. Factoring these interactions into your remote-first work culture will ensure they don’t negatively impact productivity and, critically, employees’ sense of belonging.

How IT organizations can design services that limit interrupted work

Digital distraction often stems from unwieldy processes that make it difficult to complete a task quickly, find information easily, and get issues resolved without disturbance. Research by Vanson Bourne highlights the level of digital distraction remote employees face:

  • Three quarters of remote employees wait hours, days, or weeks to get IT issues resolved
  • 68% find they are interrupted by IT’s efforts to resolve issues
  • 35% don’t have all the software they need to do their jobs well
  • 53% struggle with slow-running devices

The imperative for IT is to create seamless and frictionless processes that are intentionally designed to reduce distraction. Some areas of focus include:

  • Employee access to IT services. Let go on the one-size-fits-all approach to IT service design. Employees spend far too much time context switching between applications to find what they need. Solutions like 1E Shopping provide a single portal where users can request everything from new software to OS upgrades and IT fixes on any device, including mobiles.
  • Employee-driven IT design. The goal should be to meet employees wherever they are or want to be. When providing support, for example, employees should be able to get the support they need when they need it and without too much effort. 1E’s Virtual Assistance, for instance, integrates with commonly used collaboration platforms, such as Microsoft Teams to streamline employee access to IT support and deliver real-time resolutions without involvement from a service desk admin.
  • Reliance on end users to investigate IT issues. Too many IT support requests are resolved by using screen sharing applications to troubleshoot issues. Not only does this result in an interrupted experience, but it increases the cost per ticket as a result of longer resolution times. Moving away from screen share for issue remediation is a must to support remote employees. 1E solutions were always build remote first. Tachyon ensures that IT is able to manage devices without burdening the end user by retrieving information from endpoints in a matter of seconds without causing a front-end delay. With built-in automation capabilities, IT can issue a fix without any disruption to the end user.
  • Monitor for friction-inducing processes. Endpoints and software are critical to employees’ ability to work. When they break, run slower than usual, or are simply unresponsive, it can induce stress in employees. This is where Digital Experience Monitoring (DEM) solutions, such as Tachyon Experience, play a critical role. They monitor the experience of an end user as they interact with applications or supporting infrastructure to detect degradations in performance. 1E takes the DEM further to fulfil expectations of seamless employee experience. Once insights have been surfaced that highlight a performance issue, Tachyon empowers IT to fix these issues out-of-the-box and at scale—before the employee even realizes they have a problem or feel interrupted.

It’s never been more important for organizations to pay close attention to employee journeys outside the physical boundaries of the office. While studies laud the impact of remote working on employee productivity, we need to be careful about assuming everything works fine just as they are. Processes and technology need to be continuously refined to relieve tensions and frictions in how employees work because the cost of interrupted work will bite in the long term.

To learn more about how to build for frictionless employee experiences, join our January 2021 webinar series, 2021: The Year of Digital Employee Experience.