My colleagues and I have spent the last four years studying the links between technology, human performance at work, customer experience, and the financial performance of companies. One fascinating insight we’ve learned is that what separates the highest performing people in their work from others is their ability to reliably focus their attention, bringing more of their cognitive resources to bear on their work each day than their colleagues do. It’s not easy in our distraction-rich, techno-charged world.
There’s plenty of research that proves that happy employees are more productive, but Drs. Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer made an important discovery in 2010 that turns conventional wisdom about where happiness at work comes from, upside down. The most powerful source of happiness at work isn’t money, free food or recognition, but rather getting things done; making progress every day toward work that we know is important. The more conducive our work environment is to staying focused, and the better we are at suppressing the sources of distraction within ourselves to get our most important work done, the happier we will be at work. And, the effect is even stronger for work that requires creativity and problem solving skills.
Unfortunately in our workforce technology research, technology distraction isn't on the list of things leaders are concerned about. It should be, because the most pernicious sources of distraction employees face are the ones that lie beyond their control – the distractions that originate from the technologies their employers require them to use, when there are no alternatives.
Imagine for a moment that you’re an engineer, and your boss made it clear this morning that your promotion rests on you solving a problem with a complex product design that’s frustrating your company’s largest customers. You’re working feverishly on the problem and it takes every ounce of concentration you have to figure it out. But, the design software you’re using isn’t acting right since the IT team forced your group onto a new virtual desktop platform last month. It feels sluggish, and it’s taking several seconds for the screen to refresh. The anxiety you feel is palpable, and you’re feeling trapped, frustrated and angry. Psychologically, your brain is in full flight or flight mode, flooding itself with neurochemicals that make concentration even harder. Nevertheless, with heroic dedication you manage to solve the problem anyway, but you’ve missed dinner and your daughter’s piano recital. How many more times will you tolerate similar circumstances before you start looking for a company that has better technology?
When employees face a mismatch between the demands of their jobs and the resources they have to meet them, research proves that it impacts their motivation, attitudes, commitment, emotional well-being and health, and it leads to higher employee turnover, lower workforce productivity, lower customer satisfaction and lower company profits.
How much lower? In a multi-year 300,000 datapoint, every standard deviation increase in employee turnover (e.g. 11% to 22%) correlates with a 40% reduction in workforce productivity and a 28% reduction in profit. It pays to keep employees happy, and with knowledge workers today spending 8+ hours a day on their computers, it pays to be sure that the applications and devices they use don’t distract them. It's the intersection between workforce technology, talent management and culture.
On Tuesday, April 5th, at 1PM PST, I’ll be presenting the findings of our research on workforce technology and the psychology of high performance, at NVIDIA’s Global Technology Conference. I’ve attended the event for the past several years because it’s heavily attended by scientists and engineers, but this is the first time I've been invited to speak. If you happen to be there too, please stop by!