- Employee Engagement
The New York Times has been doing a hatchet job on personal technology for most of the summer in a series of stories about how our plugged in lifestyle is messing with our brains. The stories are frightening enough and all make the point that your laptop, your Blackberry, your IPod and whatever you do online is probably messing with the biochemistry of your brain.
It's not a new concept, having first been detailed by the Boston Globe's Magie Jackson in her very readable 2008 book, "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," in which she advances the gloomy idea that we are headed to an attention-deficient future society.
I'm skeptical that technology is somehow making us worse, any more than Gutenberg made us worse by creating the opportunity for the unwashed masses to consume the printed word.
But the neural changes brought on by technology certainly do have implications for us, especially those in the communications business who are counseling leaders of large organizations about how to engage with their distracted workforce.
Reflection and deep thinking are no longer valued in the workplace. Studies show the average information worker switches tasks every three minutes. The modern stereotype of the successful employee is the multitasker who never has time for anything but a brief discussion and never uses complete sentences in his emails. (Too busy for subjects, verbs and non-abbrevaited words.)
Scientists say our brains are actually wired to enjoy this distraction, because we get a jolt of adrenalin each time we're exposed to new stimuli. But the sceince also says that when we live in this reactive mode, we essentially shut down the important part of our brain that allows us to go beyong impulse and become creative and thoughtful, two things that businesses certainly should value from their employees.
So what's a CEO to do?
My friend and colleague Gary Grates, who runs Edelman Change, has done some very intersting work exploring how employee engagement strategies for large companies need to be altered because employees live in an "Age of Distraction."
The days of top-down communications from managers are over. Pushing information out to employees through your intranet? Not enough. Instead, leaders need to adopt an engagement style that injects them into the context in which their employees are going for information.
Don't block Facebook at the office, use it. Don't limit an employees ability, any employee, to demonstrate creativity at work. Provide platforms and incentives for them to join virtual groups outside their usual team and innovate in areas in which they have special interests or skills.
Don't share facts about your company, share a story, which even in an Age of Distraction has the remarkable power to capture attention and focus among employees.
The brain chemistry of our workforces may be changing, but the old-fashioned need to engage employees in a meaningful way has not changed. The rules are different. Our brains are different. But a simple truth remains: Companies that do a great job engaging employees succeed and make more money than those that don't.
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