In a July 2014 memo to employees, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated, “We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”
The notion that humans are paying less attention isn’t new. In fact, a 2016 New York Times article, “The Eight-Second Attention Span,” presented research findings asserting that our attention span—at eight seconds—is less than that of a goldfish, which is nine seconds.
Goldfish aside, researchers have been trying to understand this issue for years as employers have sought to increase employee focus and productivity. Keeping workers focused has always been a challenge, and now, with the coronavirus pandemic circling the globe, scores of employees are struggling to be productive while working from home.
While remote work isn’t new, it’s new for many employees and organizations. As companies navigate this new landscape, leaders will need to figure out how to help their remote employees maintain their focus by addressing two key issues: technology and human interactions.
Technology presents an opportunity and a challenge
Working remotely presents businesses with both opportunities and challenges—and many of these involve technology. For example, companies can leverage remote work as a way to support employees as they acquire new skills—such as learning how to use Zoom, the web-based videoconferencing software—while simultaneously supporting their health and well-being. At the same time, technology can present a challenge because employees may have varying comfort levels with the use of new digital platforms.
Human interactions are still crucial
Employee focus also depends on maintaining healthy human connections. Scientists know that we have all have the need for social interaction and personal connection. There’s something to be said for the value of face-to-face exchanges that happen when we greet people in the break room for a cup of coffee and a chat, or when we poke our head into a co-worker’s office to brainstorm about a new customer solution.
Replicating these experiences virtually is possible, but it won’t happen by accident. Companies need to be intentional in these efforts, and leaders need to think about how to implement solutions not only in the short term but also in the long term if the pandemic is prolonged.
So how do you start to address these issues? Here are three practical suggestions:
Provide the right support. Do your employees have the right tools to succeed as a virtual team? If employees don’t have the appropriate equipment to work from home (such as a laptop, monitor, or printer), they’ll naturally be less productive. If employees are struggling to use new software because they haven’t been trained, they’re going to experience downtime and are likely to become frustrated. These distractions will only get in the way of employees being able to focus on the work that needs to be done.
Create a sense of community. You can help employees focus on the big picture by emphasizing how their work impacts other individuals. When workers know that others are depending on them for a high-quality and timely work product, they’ll be more likely to focus on the task at hand because they don’t want to be a “weak link” for the team.
Using collaborative tools, like Microsoft Teams, is one way for organizations to create a virtual community. Not only are you facilitating human interactions through real-time collaboration, but workers are also reminded that they’re part of a team. Belonging to a community reiterates the value of personal contributions; it’s a healthy, reinforcement mechanism that allows employees to stay focused on the quality of their work because they’re part of an ecosystem that depends upon them.
Communicate clearly. Providing clear and consistent communication will keep workers abreast of how the business is performing and where priorities lie. When employees don’t have information, they’ll spend time speculating and trying to make sense of what’s happening. This is unproductive and distracting. Instead, leaders should utilize a variety of communication methods such as email, group chats, and conference calls to ensure employees are receiving the information they need to perform their jobs more effectively.
Given the economic challenges posed by COVID-19, identifying appropriate courses of action will be crucial for your organization’s ongoing financial viability. The good news? You don’t have to figure this out alone. These proven strategies will help ensure employees remain focused and committed while we’re all working remotely.
Tara Peters, Ph.D., is an educator, TED Talk speaker and bestselling author. She is the co-author of the new book “The Demotivated Employee: Helping Leaders Solve the Motivation Crisis That is Plaguing Business.” Learn more at TheLeadershipDoctors.com.