Blog post

Stop Haranguing Workers to Solve Interruption and Overload Problems Alone

By Craig Roth | November 15, 2021 | 0 Comments

Information workDigital WorkplaceAttention Management

Even though I research and write on Enterprise Attention Management, I still get annoyed by notifications and popups that are unnecessary for me. I have a high level of awareness of the problem, knowledge of proposed solutions, and motivation to fix them.  And yet, there goes my phone again flashing on the corner of my desk with a notification.  It seems there is only so much an aware, informed, motivated person can do about unnecessary interruptions and “information overload”.  

But all too often I see articles and books that imply that it’s all the worker’s problem to solve.  For example, see today’s Wall Street Journal (“Ping. Ding. Chirp. Notifications Are Driving Us Crazy.”).  The problem is described well. And at one point the author broadens the solutions a bit, quoting Gloria Mark saying the “onus is on teams and organizations to create new norms”.

But after that, the rest of the suggestions are for workers, such as “being transparent” or keeping “your clicks to a minimum”.

It Takes Four For This Tango

I see four interconnected sides to this issue: workers, IT, business management, and vendors. It’s a wicked problem and no one party can solve it.  Sure, a worker should do whatever they can to apply discipline. In fact, recognizing attentional difficulties and then learning to use your software and devices to reduce them is now part of a knowledge worker’s job (see Attention Information Workers: Your Job Description Has Changed). 

In the information age, navigating a virtual forest of information is your job, not the thing that prevents you from doing your job. 

Workers can’t do it alone, though. That’s why principle #2 in my presentation “Four Principles Digital Workplace Leaders Need to Help Workers Get Past Information Overload” is “Embrace IT’s Power to Assist All Workers”. 

Instead of trying to get workers, one at a time, to change their behavior, why not look for action from the one person who owns the system that’s bothering everybody?  If the notification settings for email or Teams or devices are too distracting, one IT person can change the default instead of suggesting a thousand workers do it through a “tip” in a newsletter. Getting or building some new systems may help (but be careful not to make the problem worse).

IT, We Have a Problem

IT needs to put some skin in the game.  That may take investment of their time and resources. For example, our IT department noticed that a process for handling client requests was filling up inboxes with emails that could fall between the cracks or weren’t needed. So they developed a system to handle and track these requests.  It just launched today, so that is too soon to tell if it will succeed in reducing the noise in my inbox.  But I like that IT noticed and then decided to own this problem instead of just sending all of us poor analysts tips on how to better manage our emails.

I understand these articles and books are targeted to workers. No sense telling them to take control over things they have no control over, right?  But without acknowledging the other sides to this wicked problem, the implication is that if you’re feeling info-stress it’s your fault. 

So let me say to stressed out workers: do what you can to decrease the noise and increase the ability to notice the important information, but there’s only so much you can do without help and you’re not alone in having trouble managing the deluge of notifications and data.  

And to IT: get to work helping your workers manage their attention!  They can’t do it without you.

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