A look at tool sprawl, the psychological effects of multitasking and distracted meeting participants.
If you’re reading this article on a computer right now, I’ll bet you five bucks this isn’t the only tab you’ve got open.
There’s that other article you’re planning on getting around to later (thanks for choosing ours first). You’ve probably got your email app open in another, an important document that you need to review before your next meeting in a fourth and a fifth containing a quiz that will determine what kind of cheese you are. Oh look at that, your colleague just sent you a link to a hilarious YouTube video.
If I’m right then this is just one, tiny example of the way you’re overextending your brain right now (and I’ll take that fiver as an IOU).
Experts have found that rapidly switching between tasks (or tabs) is a surefire way to exhaust and confuse the brain, because there is no such thing as multitasking. While it might feel like you’re simultaneously paying attention to several things at once, you’re actually shifting your focus between them.
You may have opened all these tabs to be productive, but it’s having the opposite effect. It’s weakening your attention span.
The worldwide move towards remote work over the last few months means many of us are integrating technology into our work routines in ways we’ve not done before, but are our brains really built for this?
Multitasking is changing our brains
Not only are humans generally not very talented at ‘multitasking’, neuroscience research from 2014 shows that simultaneously consuming media platforms can affect the grey matter in our brains and lead to depression and social anxiety.
It turns out our brain structures can change when exposed to certain environments for long periods of time (job insecurity can have a similar effect).
The researchers analysed the media consumption habits of 75 participants from the University College London and gave each score to distinguish between high and low level media multitaskers.
Those who engaged in more media multitasking tended to have smaller grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain linked with empathy, impulse control, emotion and decision-making). The study was limited in that it didn’t measure habits over time, so the researchers note it’s possible that smaller grey matter density causes people to have a higher level of media multitasking.
But if the researchers’ hypothesis is correct and the opposite is true, it would mean that people with higher level media multitasking habits are more likely to have poorer cognitive performance and negative socio-emotional outcomes as compared to those who have lower level habits.
The researchers refer to a similar study which showed people with high level media multitasking were “slower in detecting changes in visual patterns, more susceptible to false recollections of the distractors during a memory task, and were slower in task switching”.
Multi communicating effectively
We’re having more video conferencing calls than ever before and, as HRM previously reported, it’s causing many of us to feel exhausted.
One thing we didn’t discuss was the effect of having a conversation with a colleague or friend on a separate digital platform (text message, Slack, email etc) during a meeting.
Research currently being conducted by Ann-Frances Cameron, Shamel Addas and Matthias Spitzmuller, is examining how this kind of multi communication (MC) might affect a team’s perception of an individual.
MC is more than just sending a quick text or scrolling through Instagram during a meeting. It accounts for when “individuals engage not only in secondary tasks, but must also balance different media, conversations, and communication partners” at once.
Using social interdependence theory, multilevel theorizing and external research, they theorise that those who are involved in “one or more technology-mediated secondary conversation(s)” during another meeting (they call these people MCers) have the potential to have both a negative or positive effect on the meeting.
It depends on whether or not the MC is congruent to the meeting goals (i.e. they’re seeking external information that’s related to the meeting) or incongruent (i.e. the secondary conversation is about another project or personal matter). If it’s the former then people will psychologically invest in the MCer, if it’s the latter they will see them as rude or unprofessional, and be less likely to want to work with them again, the researchers suggest.
These are the kinds of conclusions we all intuitively grasp about this behaviour (if you’re diddling on your phone, it better be relevant to the meeting). The more interesting part of the research is what happens when people aren’t sure what you’re doing (“unknown MCing”).
Preliminary results from the research suggests participants are more likely to make negative assumptions in these circumstances, believing the MCer to be engaging in personal/non-meeting related conversations.
Separately, the researchers also suggest any acts of MCing (be they incongruent or congruent with meeting goals) have the potential to derail a meeting due to the ‘distraction effect’. If people notice someone typing away on their laptop during a video meeting, they’re more likely to become distracted themselves.
While their research is yet to draw any clear conclusions, the theories they propose offer interesting food for thought. Regardless of why you’re doing it, it’s best to let everyone know what you’re doing before you become distracted by another screen during a meeting. If it’s to help the group, they might even appreciate it.
We’re using too many platforms
Much like our brains feel overwhelmed by having too many tabs open at once, the same occurs when we’re jumping between various platforms all day – from a Zoom meeting, to a Slack audio conversation, to a Google Hangout, for example.
A report from RingCentral, which surveyed 2,000 knowledge workers from across the globe, found that the average employee is using four communication apps each day. Survey respondents say the volume of communication in their day is a barrier to getting their work done with 68 percent of workers saying they toggle between apps up to 10 times in an hour.
And it’s not just an issue with communication platforms. Using too many tech platforms in general, a phenomenon known as ‘tool sprawl,’ can seriously hamper your team’s productivity.
Research from HubSpot shows that 82 per cent of respondents felt they were losing valuable time each day (up to an hour) trying to manage the nuances of different tech platforms and over 60 per cent are using 10 per cent of their annual budget integrating, managing and maintaining these various platforms.
Too many platforms is making us less efficient and it also has the potential to lead towards data sprawl (when important data is located across multiple platforms) meaning it’s harder for teams and individuals to quickly gather the information they need to do their jobs.
Remote work looks like it’s going to be on the cards for some time now, so it’s worth looking at what your existing platforms can do before implementing a new one.
Now that you’ve finished this article, you can close this tab. That’s one less distraction for you today.