Do you start your days looking at a calendar full of meetings and feel overcome with joy? Me neither – especially when I have a lot of work to get done that I know is more important. And when you’re in those meetings, are you fully engaged or are you trying to clean out your email queue and put the finishing touches on your slides for your next meeting? That’s what I thought. After all of your meetings, are you in any mood to plan your next day, week or month? Nope, me neither. Do you tell yourself that you’re going to get up early on a Saturday so you can get things done that require a lot of focus, and then don’t do it? Yeah, me too.
And so it continues. A crisis of attention wears us out and re-tunes our brains to feast on the false sense of accomplishment that goes with getting a lot of really small, transactional things done. And our mobile devices make matters worse. Without realizing it, we drain our limited cognitive fuel, leaving nothing left at the end of the day to do serious thinking, creative work or longer-term planning. Mismanaging our technology and ourselves, and burning out, is but one element in a mosaic of things that scientists who participated in our research like Teresa Amabile at the Harvard Business School and author of “The Progress Principle", and David Rock, neuroscientist and author of “Your Brain at Work" now know about how we work best as knowledge workers. It’s also something that we as individuals can, and must control if we want to be effective in our jobs as knowledge workers.
When employees don’t have the resources to meet the demands of their jobs, they burn out
Unfortunately, mismanaging ourselves and our technology are not the only things that cause us to burn out. The list of things that we don’t control, or must rely on others to control for us, is longer. In 2007, Arnold Bakker and Evangelia Demerouti published a paper called The Job Demands-Resources Model: State of the Art in the Journal of Managerial Psychology. The central finding is that job strain develops – irrespective of the type of job or occupation – when certain job demands are high and when certain job resources are limited. In contrast, work engagement is most likely when job resources are high (also in the face of high job demands). When engagement is high enough, employees can reach a state of flow.
Flow happens when personal and organizational resources match the job demands
The pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied flow for four decades. He describes it as “a pleasurable experiential state that occurs during full-capacity engagement in which an individual is performing at a level that is matched with the demands of the task.” In a state of flow, people perform at their best, and their best can be extraordinary. A landmark 1990 study into worker productivity revealed that the top 1% of performers in high-complexity knowledge work, such as engineers, systems analysts, and project managers, are 127% more productive than average performers and up to 47 times more productive than the bottom 1% of performers.
Flow drives great customer service and prevents burnout
In 2002, James Harter and Frank Schmidt published a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology quantifying the relationship between employee satisfaction and engagement, and business outcomes which has since been validated in other research. What they found is that companies with the most engaged employees enjoy 81% higher customer satisfaction and 103% improvement in employee turnover — non-trivial results for any business. The reason is simple: A passion for serving customers is a choice that employees make — often several times a day. Organizations that meet the psychological needs of employees better enable them to embrace the intrinsic motivation to engage more fully in their work and serve customers better.
Cognitive science will play a decisive role in technology management strategy.
What does all of this mean? Forrester believes that the future of knowledge work requires a shift in technology management thinking, and that cognitive science must play a decisive role in technology management strategy as the world’s developed economies continue their technology-led shift toward ever more sophisticated knowledge work. We will continue to inform our workforce computing research with cognitive sciences because we believe it’s critical for technology managers in the age of the customer.
Focus on job-related resources for employees in your company’s value zone
To begin your journey of learning, start with the research Forrester is releasing today called “A Crisis of Attention: Technology, Productivity and Flow”. In the references, you will also find enough additional reading to start changing the conversation inside your firm. When looking at your own organization, start by thinking about the employees who are most critical to its value proposition to customers, and then think about the resources that they truly need to do their best work. It may be things like better access to data, or a more user-friendly customer support system that can provide them much richer information to serve customers better with. It may also mean looking at their daily meeting loads and finding ways to help reduce them, or providing technologies that will be less distracting and help employees manage themselves better.