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How Information Overload at Work Differs from Home

by Craig Roth  |  September 10, 2012  |  Comments Off on How Information Overload at Work Differs from Home

Is it easier to tell your boss or your mother to stop emailing you so often?  Does your IT department provide better tools to filter emails than your personal web-based email does? 

People complain about information overload and communication stress at home and at work.  But are they the same problem (with the same solutions), or does the workplace offer some unique opportunities to improve attention management? 

The answer to this question makes a big difference for those who are in charge of enterprise communication/collaboration systems or who are systematic senders of messages.  In my research on enterprise attention management I have found several differences between the nature and solutions to information stress at home and at work.  Each difference opens up new avenues to improve attention management that might not be considered if this is blurred with personal attention management.

Before I get into the differences, I need to acknowledge the many similarities.  In both spheres, people are stressed and make poor decisions due to the deluge of emails, IMs, text messages, social network postings, calls, and other interruptions.  And in both spheres, the same high level catalysts exist: expectations, culture, etiquette, patterns of behavior, and time management.

But I see several differences in the workplace that should be exploited in the search for solutions to info-stress:

  1. Enterprise communication and collaboration systems often have more sophisticated filtering and notification systems.  For example, Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes allow more targeted and sophisticated rules to automatically handle inbound emails than Gmail or Yahoo mail.  (Hotmail is an exception – it has some fancy rules capabilities)
  2. You have an IT department at work that can change key systems, such as having a key operational system post weekly reports in a document library or through RSS.  They may be able to add notifications to make you aware if certain thresholds are exceeded.  At home you either don’t have access to the key systems or it’s individuals sending ad hoc emails
  3. At work, certain people with formal authority can take actions that influence interactions on a mass scale, rather than just the pairwise improvement you get telling the Little League coach to stop appending the schedule to every email.
  4. Enterprises have systematic senders of messages that do regular, mass communications.  These are departments you can work with to make sure their messages are targeted to the right channels, improving the information consumption patterns of lots of folks. In the personal sphere, it may seem like you know people that do regular mass communications (like holiday letters!), but it’s not quite the same as corporate communications or HR. 
  5. Enterprises have repeatable, documented, formal processes that can be “debugged” and improved.  For example, a medical testing lab has processes for notifying hospitals of positive test results.  If these communications are not being noticed in time, someone can analyze and change the process.  At home your spouse and kids may not appreciate a business process model and swimlane analysis for preparation and cleanup of dinner with improvement suggestions identified.
  6. Enterprises have a different social contract.  The power structure, importance of feelings, willingness to change are different between work and home.  I can’t tell which is easier to deal with though.  It may be tough to tell your boss’s boss to take you off a mailing list, but is it easier to tell that to your old college friend? Or your father?  If you’re told to change how you communicate at work, is your reaction “whatever, it’s a job – as long as the paychecks keep coming …” or “hey, this is my job!  This is too important to mess around with”?  Can you be more blunt with people at work since it’s a professional workplace, or are people thin-skinned by nature not environment?  Is a monthly status update to your sisters more or less mandatory than a status update to your project team?  In these cases I think there is a difference between communication at home at work, but I can’t tell which is the easier to improve.

My point is that enterprise opportunities to improve attention management are missed when the personal and enterprise spheres are lumped into a single nihilistic narrative about our always-on, go-go world and our caveman brains that can’t evolve quick enough to keep pace with technology.  There’s clearly a different breed of caveman in the manager’s chair than the La-Z Boy recliner.

Category: attention-management  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio

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