Technology is often blamed for distracting us. Similarly, the concept of work-life balance has faded away. You're now asked to find the right rhythm of "work-life blending." However, with technology's impact on our lives, we lose sight of when we should step away from work. Technology has enabled us to be available 24/7, and almost everyone expects instantaneous responses. There are no boundaries.
But technology isn't the problem.
You have more emails than you can process. Add in Slack messages and other channels you must keep up with, and you feel even more out of control. You don't finish the planned to-dos for the day, so they carry into the next. You start to feel the signs of depression that come with high expectations and low control.
I spoke with Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable, after his speech at the 2019 Inc. 5000 Conference. He told me, "When we have high control with high expectations, it does not depress us." Eyal shared with me that technology isn't the root cause nor is it the solution. Instead, Eyal said, "The modern workplace is a constant source of distraction." Distraction is preventing more than just focused work. Your distraction prevents you from even seeing the future of work.
Work expectations continuously evolve; as leaders, we must be aware of the traits that are driving changes in how teams perform at their highest levels. These two traits are often misunderstood:
1. The need for psychological safety
Many workers can't talk about a problem without fearing losing their job. Without psychological safety, employees don't discuss obvious problems. Employees are also likely to hide issues -- big and small -- when they don't feel safe.
Psychological safety has been a hot topic since the findings of Project Aristotle. The 2012 study, led by Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google's people analytics division, helped determine how to build the "perfect team." Google found that the most predictive factor for high-performing teams was a group of leaders creating a feeling of psychological safety within its staff.
The future of work must include teams who speak up about their concerns. Leaders must take the time to make this a priority and give employees a forum to voice their views.
2. Leading by example
You know that leading by example is important. It's common for leaders to say, "I'll go first." But when I'm working with high-performing leaders, they don't realize how this applies to even the smallest aspects of work.
Take weekend emails. Leaders commonly use the weekend to catch up on email, often responding to emails early on Saturday mornings. They don't expect a response from team members, yet employees feel compelled to demonstrate their commitment to the mission. Technology isn't the problem, but it has enabled the employee to feel distracted at a time when he or she is recharging from work.
This response seems normal, but it's also counterproductive. The problem here is that the leader is demonstrating the need to put in extra hours. Employees feel they must do the same. One 2014 study from Stanford University proves that long hours aren't productive. In his research, John Pencavel found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. This pattern of working also hinders our creativity and our cognition. Taking time off is a prerequisite for success.
I'm guilty of this too. I've gone through periods when I wanted to get the work done. I didn't think about how working extra hours would impact my team. The real solution: Remove any misinterpretations of what you expect by thinking it through first.
Slack was recognized as Inc.'s 2015 Company of the Year. At Slack HQ, the wall slogan says, "Work Hard and Go Home." Employees are chastised if they're on Slack past 6 p.m. or over the weekend. But more important, the company has established a culture where people can talk about their problems. That enables them to cut themselves off and actually go home.
Distractions, after all, are caused by a lot more than technology -- and a failure to recognize that is a failure to lead your team. Create a culture in which people can honestly say, "I'm struggling." The companies where that doesn't happen are truly struggling.