Too Connected to Concentrate? 7 Ways to Find Focus When Working Remotely
It’s noon and you’ve been working on a project since 9 a.m. The deadline is looming and you’re barely a quarter done. Relentless emails, texts, alerts, and meeting invitations — all meant to keep you connected while you work remotely — keep pulling your attention away. Every time you settle in and regain your focus — ping!
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Remote workers are struggling to stay on top of the barrage of notifications they receive every day while carving out uninterrupted time to get their work done. Finding a balance between team collaboration and individual concentration is tricky, but it’s possible — and essential for your employees’ health and the success of your organization.
Remote Work Tests Everyone’s Attention Span
Our homes weren’t designed for work. Whether you live alone or have a house full of kids and pets, you’ll encounter far more distractions than you would in your typical office.
Working 100 percent online is also just harder. A recent study from the Microsoft Human Factors Lab found that remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration, activating parts of the brain linked to stress and overwork. Then there’s the fact that remote employees are working longer days than they did in the office.
The Upside of Collaboration Tools
Let’s be clear: If it weren’t for collaboration technology, the pandemic’s economic impact would have been far worse. The fact that many companies had at least some basic business apps in place kept work moving, albeit awkwardly and inefficiently in some cases.
According to a recent study, the top concerns of managers of remote teams are reduced employee productivity, focus, and cohesiveness. To avoid these pitfalls, many companies have adopted multiple collaboration tools. Some of these solutions have a social element, enabling employees to build and sustain strong relationships with coworkers in the absence of in-person interaction. This is crucial for maintaining a sense of belonging, which is known to boost performance.
In short, collaboration tools are vital for remote work — but you know what they say about too much of a good thing.
COVID and Collaboration Overload
When researchers from RMIT University surveyed a selection of global professionals, almost every respondent across the public, private, and education sectors agreed that digital overload has increased during the pandemic. People feel like they’re using too many tools (an average of nine different communication and collaboration tools every day, according to the survey), taking in too much information, and spending too many hours in digital meetings.
Many remote employees also feel pressured to prove their productivity because they’re out of managers’ sight. This compels them to respond instantly to every message that pours in. Experts say “presenteeism” — defined here as “employees working when they shouldn’t be” – is on the rise.
The Downside of Digital Distraction
Despite senior leaders’ best intentions, the influx of collaboration tools has negatively affected employees’ ability to focus. Many remote workers are coping with app fatigue, burnout, and shattered attention spans.
Our brains aren’t wired to handle rapid shifts between apps and tasks. According to neuroscience research, distractions and interruptions — often from technology — disrupt our ability to set goals. That explains why we drop everything when we see a colleague’s message even though we really have to meet that deadline. Other scientists have shown that it can take up to 23 minutes to refocus our efforts after just one interruption.
Employees say they feel unmotivated when battling distraction overload, which only makes things worse. And burnout can lead to more serious problems than reduced productivity. If it’s ignored or goes on too long, burnout can cause serious physical and mental health problems ranging from depression to heart disease.
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7 Ways to Balance Collaboration and Concentration
Digital collaboration is part of the job for remote workers, but organizations can help them manage intense demands with strategies like these:
1. Rethink the 9 to 5
Encourage employees to do focused work when their homes are relatively peaceful — when kids are occupied or asleep, neighbors aren’t likely to blast their music, and partners aren’t on calls. Forget traditional business hours. Embrace flexible work schedules and trust your employees.
2. Block the Noise by Blocking Calendars
Lead by example and block off quiet time in your calendar for tasks requiring concentration. Encourage employees to do the same. On the flip side, they can block off time when they’re fully available for meetings and activity on collaboration apps.
3. Clarify Expectations
Create a corporate culture that values uninterrupted, focused work time. Communicate this vision clearly and often so employees know they won’t be judged for muting notifications during their most productive times.
4. Take Stock of Your Tools
Audit your platforms, apps, and systems. App sprawl can happen quickly, especially during remote work. Determine exactly how many tools your employees are using, for what use cases, and how often.
5. Ask Employees What’s Working and What’s Not
Open the floor for a frank conversation about the collaboration tools in use across the organization. Which ones do employees think are helpful and efficient, and which are annoying and cumbersome? If they could choose just a handful of tools to keep, which would they be?
6. Centralize Collaboration
Consider consolidating the most popular and useful tools in a unified digital workplace. If there’s overlap, eliminate unnecessary apps that generate extra noise. Make it easy for employees to communicate, collaborate, and access business-critical information in a single hub.
7. Check In Regularly
Keep a close eye on how employees are managing the pressures of digital collaboration. If possible, go beyond traditional employee surveys and implement sentiment analysis technology powered by machine learning. This approach delivers deeper insight into how employees are feeling.
Remote work, in some form, is here to stay. Employee well-being and productivity — and your organization’s bottom line — depend on balancing the demands of online collaboration and focused work time.
Mike Hicks is CMO of Beezy.