Futures Rambling #103

I recently read that if your life is dominated by negative incentives, my source put it as living in a world of sticks and no carrots; that you’ll quickly lose interest and motivation. That’s about the best excuse I can find for not having written if I want to avoid unhelpful labels like shiftless bum. Therefore, the diagnosis of loss of motivation due to negative incentives suits me just fine. What negative incentives you ask? Have you watched the news lately? It’s a motivational black hole.

Even if you had zero interest in the asinine things Trump did in the past 24 hours, you would be hard pressed to avoid it with your phone pinging at each absurd debacle you allowed it to push and social media scrolling down your display screen like a waterfall. It’s like driving by an automobile accident, we want to look away but don’t. We can partly blame BJ Fogg for that. He taught “The Facebook Class’ at Stanford, that was a curriculum that explored how technology persuades people.

Fogg’s students went on to use the basics of behavioural psychology and other psychological principles to map out how to attract attention. They created an ‘addiction code’ that uses the electromagnetic reward system in the brain to manipulate the habit-forming tendencies we’re all prone to. Some call it brain hacking. It’s very effective, few can resist a sweet hit of dopamine, that’s the neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you happy when you smoke crack or look at Facebook.

Every day we enter into a bargain where we exchange our time, attention and personal data for news, entertainment and services. The conundrum is that it’s hard to tell what’s worthwhile from what’s rubbish. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that whole industries have emerged that take data and knowledge about you and sell it to the highest bidder. This is not new, in the 1990s three scholars: Jonathan Beller, Michael Goldhaber and Georg Frank coined this the ‘attention economy’.

In the attention economy most of us live in a perpetual state of deficit, not knowing where to look next and easily distracted reading stories about Stormy Daniels rather than paying attention to family, friends and work. To put this in perspective, authors Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck noted that the Sunday New York Times contains more factual information in one edition than in all the written material available to a reader in the 15th century.

Anything that is scarce can form an economy. Today what we have in abundance is information and knowledge, but human attention unfortunately occurs in limited supply. Davenport and Beck say human attention has been commodified to the point that it often fails to meet the demands of our businesses or society and that can have serious psychological and organisational consequences.

Running at attention deficit for too long can cause businesses to miss the boat because they fail to see the trends and new developments that are occurring with their competitors. It’s a form of organisational ADD where the businesses attention is hijacked leading organisations to focus in areas that don’t serve them. Consequently, managing a valuable currency like attention is critical for companies today, it’s a determinant of business success.

Navigating the muck to sort what’s worthwhile is something few of us excel at, particularly when psychological tricks are being played. But before we throw stones in glass houses, consider this, we do the same in our desperate attempt to attract the best talent, keep employees attracted, create points of difference to get attention, develop services, offers and wonderful experiences to attract clients. Everyone is waving and screaming and vying for time and attention. Some losers even write blogs no one reads – all for attention.

Some people are very worried about this, one is Tristan Harris. He graduated from Fogg’s class and then went to work for Google where he created a presentation “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.” That was a precursor to what he is doing now, running an advocacy group called Time Well Spent – they are lobbyist that go after the tech industry encouraging them to align with societal well-being.

Good for him. It made me think, who is doing this in our industry and what contribution are we making? In particular, do the open plan offices we design contribute to negative incentives that rob attention? There are many reasons we recommend open plan environments, most are sound including: flexibility, creating community, mentoring, social support, not to mention clear environmental drivers. Less space built equals lower carbon footprint.

We also tout open plan leads to greater collaboration and faster decision making, but new research done by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban from the Harvard Business School found just the opposite. The study measured interaction in two multinational companies during completion of new office designs. They observed employees for eight weeks before and after the fit-out were complete using sociometric badges and Bluetooth sensors.

What they found was a 70% decrease in interaction and a 20 to 50% increase in emails. WOW, when you consider this with findings from past Harvard studies that concluded poorly planned open plan environments increase our cognitive load, it becomes downright frightening. Cognitive processes are the ones knowledge workers engage in daily: gathering information, analysing and making decisions. If interrupted it compromises the workers ability to focus and concentrate and that leads to stress and errors.

Personally, I’ve been unable to concentrate for the past thirty years, but am I guiding your plane in for a landing or operating on your brain? As if that wasn’t enough, there’s more from Harvard. It appears that when we can’t concentrate we get snarky and that leads us to cease interacting with the very co-workers we’re meant to be collaborating with. We don earphones and distribute disapproving glances to those with the audacity to laugh or talk in the office.

Wait there’s more, open plan causes us to assume defensive behaviour that strain workplace relationships. An example of this can be observed just near my desk where the IDT help desk team have tried to use potted plants to keep me from asking them tech questions. It’s futile, shrubbery won’t stop me, I’ve got them on speed dial.

Alas, the study is not all gloom and doom, it suggests that rather than a one-size-fits- all approach that organisations create environments where workers have options to work that vary between places that support privacy and focus, interaction and collaboration. They also suggest cognitive resources can be replenished by allowing people to look out the window. This works even in the presence of distraction, how novel. Who would have thunk it! That my friends, is why people from Harvard earn the big bucks.

 

Sources:

Beck, John C and Davenport, Thomas H; “The Attention Economy – Understanding the New Currency of Business”

DiSalvo, David; “The Reasons Why We Can’t Put Down Our Smartphone” Forbes; April 9, 2017

Sander, Libby; “Here’s the Final Nail in the Coffin of Open Plan Offices” The Conversation; April 11, 2018

Schwab, Katharine; “Everyone Should be Reading “The Attention Merchants” This Summer”; Fast Company CoDesign; July 16, 2018

Stilzoff, Simone; “The Formula for Phone Addiction Might Double as a Cure” Wired; February 1, 2018

 

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