What's your Screen Strategy?

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We talk a lot about “screens” these days. We screen for disease; we screen job applicants over the phone; we screen digital content for our children.  There is plenty of debate in the news, at schools, and in offices across the globe trying to determine guidelines for how we might best monitor and optimize and/or minimize “screen time.”  So much so,  that April 29th – May 5th is “National Screen Free Week” – the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC)’s revamp of a 1994 initiative, “TV Turn off week”.

But what does “screen free” mean? Does it have some positive (or negative) correlation to an organization’s ability to set strategy, to align its leadership and teams behind that strategy to advance the business?  Do screens in our work life support, distract, or even determine business results? Could they?

Screens, taken literally, are designed to filter out what is useful from what is not: a window screen allows air and light into the home but keeps debris out. The computer screen, for instance, is more complex: it presents some pieces of information and obscures others. How good are these screens at sorting what is useful from what is not? And then there is our brain, automatically receiving heaps of sensory data, selecting what it thinks is useful, and discarding what it thinks is not.  

With the ever crescendo-ing cacophony of digital distractions at work (e-mails, texts, Yammers, Skypes, Slacks etc.) Vantage Partners conducted a just-in-time research study to understand more (March 2019):  Is digital distraction keeping companies from advancing?

Here were the questions:

  • What are the top distractions in your work life? Please note how often you experience the following: Tech issues, Chatty co-workers, office noise, work notifications, personal notifications, unexpected phone calls
    • What other distractions do you experience (if not listed above)?
  • What distracts you? Select as many as apply: Pressure to be responsive, fear of missing something, frequent notifications, feeling disengaged, need to re-charge, personal life
  • How do you manage or reduce your distractions?

Respondents told us that the most compelling distractions are driven by a fear of missing something important and a pressure to respond quickly. 

Figure 1.1

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In Amelia Tait’s article, Read it and weep: why is replying to emails so hard?, she cites a Professor of Cyberpsychology, Dr. Lee Hadlington, who observes, “The process of sending messages via email has gone from one that should be asynchronous – so there should be a respective delay between sending the email and expecting a reply – to one that is essentially synchronous in nature”. We have created a norm around e-mail response time (and perhaps other digital correspondences too) that if we are not immediately responsive, we might be signaling a lack of commitment…even negligence!  

In beginning to understand WHY people stay continually connected to a screen, the next question becomes more about the WHAT.  The impact of the WHY, of course, plays out often in organizations across the globe: we lose focus and along with focus, moments to connect, to build stronger relationships with clients and colleagues, and to enter into the realm of negotiation in which we generate more value, more efficiently. This is not to mention that see-sawing on decisions and the inability to sustain attention over multiple hours (in the ways that complex, organizational problem solving requires) shows up as loss of value in our companies - time, energy, engagement, advancing priorities, resolving thorny issues, or capital.

So, what are the things that distract us?  Figure 1.2 builds a fairly compelling case of the role of notifications as the interrupting culprit in employees’ flow of work.

 Figure 1.2

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Seconded only by personal notifications; the other top contender for creating the greatest distraction seems to be the unexpected…see below:

Figure 1.3

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Respondents reported that to manage distraction they turn off their notifications. Yet, what distracts them most is notifications.  What do we make of that? Do we turn off our iPad and laptop, but keep the phone on? Turn off the phone but keep on the iPad? Is the only way to avoid distraction to avoid our devices all together?

A mentor of mine loves to tell the story of a Sensei approached by a student after a martial arts demonstration who asks, “Sensei, how is it that you never lose your balance?” The Sensei responded, “You have it all wrong.  I lose my balance – all the time – I just know how to regain it quickly.”

 Ancient martial art, modern digital distraction. 

If only we could catch ourselves when we stray too far from the moment  - the team we are engaging -  the decision we are making – the conversation we are having -  and focus on rebalancing.   Reclaim the moment of distraction. A moment. And then back to the business at hand. And, oh by the way, it’s not a moment of intentional digital attention. It is noticing when your mind has strayed to “check your feed”. You realize it, and you bring your intention and attention BACK to the physical here and now meeting/task/person at hand. Presence may be one of the most underrated skills at work.

Figure 1.4

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This data does not just apply to digital distractions, but also to how we might approach negotiations. When it comes down to it, most of how we get work done in our companies is through negotiation – not the traditional, formal sitting at table hashing through contracts, but the less formal efforts we make to get work done by and through others. This is especially relevant for those of us who operate in a matrixed environment where the fight for resources, budget, time, roles is constant AND can get heated.

 A negotiator, like a healthy screen user, is not immune to distraction; she is aware that she can be distracted so she leaves her phone upside down on the table, so the notifications don’t catch her eye. When she does use her phone, she knows she will face distraction and will practice her re-balancing/“coming back to the moment” muscles.

Our behaviors vis-a-vis screens and workplace negotiations vary as a function of our mindset – whether we show up as fighting, trying to win, solving a problem, or looking for a way to avoid it all-together. These behaviors initiate what Mitch Prinstein refers to as ‘the “transactional model” in his book Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status Obsessed World, or as we may know it informally - “the domino effect” – that chain reaction involving how others act toward us, how we behave in response, and how those responses in turn elicit new behaviors among others.  In an ideal world, this cycle is one that helps us align individuals, teams and leaders behind a common goal. It is not diluted by digital distraction, rather it is enhanced by technological capability. As an old boss used to say to our team, with her arm outstretched, and her finger pointing straight ahead: WINNING IS THAT WAY. HEADS UP. EYES FORWARD. LET’S MOVE! (yes, she was former military)

Knowing that we will be confronted with distraction, the challenge is, for both screen use and negotiation, how can we regain our balance as quickly as possible?  The call to action here is not perfection or wholesale change; it is practice, practice, practice. Set your mind to it and your behavior will follow.  You will see the results of your efforts as you fly through the project that was stumping you or catch the reservation in a colleague’s tone that enables you to rewind, address their needs, and move the meeting forward.  You, personally, can accelerate performance by downplaying the distractions you, your leaders or teams face and re balancing your focus  - both organizationally and digitally. Try it. We dare you!

 Figure 1.5

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Align and Advance

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