Tag Archives: multi-tasking

Rituals engage staff

It’s no surprise that employee engagement is a hot topic right now in the wake of cutbacks, pay freezes, and redundancies (and the survivor guilt and loss of productivity that goes with that).

According to a Towers Perrin worldwide survey (2007), only 21% of employees feeling fully engaged, compared to almost twice as many feeling disengaged.

Discretionary effort is still the holy grail for many companies but looking at some of the approaches being adopted to engage staff they seem to be as focussed on well-being as on motivation. Not much mention of Stress, Quality of Working Life or Work-Life Balance any more but what’s in a name anyway.

Sony’s Energy Project, reported in the June 2010 Harvard Business Review: “The Productivity Paradox. How Sony pictures get more by demanding less” started by looking at employee burnout and employee performance 10 years ago. As in many organisations they found that once employees completed training sessions and went back into the work place they faced resistance from the organisation – the re-entry crisis.

They eventually realised that for organisational change to endure the top leaders had to be involved and fundamental shifts made in the way they managed people. First by stopping assuming people can operate like computers – continuously, at high speeds, and multi-tasking (See my earlier post: Multi-tasking addiction makes you stupider than smoking pot) and by  recognising that employees work better when periods of intense activity are interspersed with opportunities for renewal.

Secondly by systematically meeting the employees’ 4 core needs so that they are refreshed and inspired to go to work each day. The 4 needs are: physical health (nutrition, sleep, exercise, and day-time renewal); emotional well-being (through being appreciated and valued); mental clarity (the ability to focus intensely, think creatively, and prioritise); and spiritual significance (the feeling of serving a mission that goes beyond just making a profit).

Crucially Sony’s co-chairs agreed to look at their own leadership behaviours and the way they did things, and how that impacted upon staff. Two critical changes were that the introvert chair discovered people didn’t realise what he was feeling so he started calling and writing personal notes of appreciation to people, and that the other chair was conflict-averse which left uncertainty amongst her staff. Which is where rituals come into it.

Rituals are practices you carry out at certain times to do highly specific activities. In this way they eventually become automatic and don’t require conscious will or discipline.  So to stop avoiding conflict th chair learned to ask herself; “what’s the right thing to do here for the company?”. Other rituals included taking a walk when people felt frustrated, self-talk, learning to pause and respond rather than react.

To help be more focussed one executive turned off e-mails at certain times, one committed to ignoring e-mails when on the phone, another spent 5 minutes every evening reflecting on his top 3 tasks for the following day and then set aside an uninterrupted 60-90 minutes the following day to deal with them.

They also introduced rituals to increase collaboration and open-ness but reduce groupthink. They also agreed to ban e-mails during meetings and when that meant people working on them in the evenings they banned that too outside an 0800-2000 time frame. Any urgent stuff had to be handled by a personal call instead.

Reading the case study some of these ideas seem obvious – but that’s always the case with hindsight. But there is nothing really new here. They are  mixture of behavioural interventions, including assertiveness and active listening, time management, and common courtesy.

Some of the highlighted Dos and Don’ts are:

  • Do take a lunch break and encourage others to do the same
  • Do communicate your values by writing notes of appreciation
  • Do set aside an informal space to promote creative thinking and brainstorming
  • Do share your passion
  • Don’t avoid conflict. Enter difficult conversations with a spirit of openness and curiosity
  • Don’t try to multi-task. Give people your full attention and active listening
  • Don’t be self-absorbed. It’s not all about you. Serve the needs of people you lead.

Now a book by Tom Shwartz et al: “The way we’re working isn’t working: the four forgotten needs that energise great performance”, sets these out in more detail using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a structure for the book. Advice to sleep more, eat more healthily, only work in 90 minute bursts, and take regular exercise is complemented by case study examples from Sony, Ernst & Young, and Barclays Wealth.

Updated 2 July 2010.

Advertisements

Multi-tasking addiction makes you stupider than smoking pot

60 years ago Carlson carried out the first empirical study of what managers actually do but it was another 20 years before Henry Mintzberg’s study of Chief Executives, published as: The Nature of Managerial Work”, made people realise that, among other things; “managers’ jobs are characterised by brevity, variety, and fragmentation”.

And from that study came the message that managers rarely spend more than 15 mins on any one task at their desk before being interrupted. A finding that has been more or less replicated by other researchers since then.

However back then there was no internet, no e-mail, no social networking sites. In his latest book “Managing”, Mintzberg again examines the work of senior managers (he eschews the notion of leaders) and comes to much the same conclusion with e-mails etc just being a means of reinforcing the characteristics of what managers do anyway – and they were already spending 40% of their time on communication back in 1973.

Office workers however may only have 3 minutes on a task before they are interrupted by e-mails or callers. It can actually become quite addictive e-mailing and texting and waiting to see if people have replied – almost like playing a slot machine, and 15% of people even admit to checking for e-mails in church. And according to John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email”, because we spend so much time checking our inboxes or refreshing Twitter pages, we are less productive because our attention spans are shattered into tiny fragments.

Microsoft found that it can take 25 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted by an e-mail even though it might only take your brain a minute to recover your train of thought. We also get anxious thinking through the consequences of sending a message and waiting for a reply. We may not realise that checking our e-mails every 5 minutes adds up to over 1 day a week but we end up juggling at least two things at once. On the phone whilst checking e-mails, checking messages in meetings, tweeting during union negotiations, driving whilst texting (result ing in over 6o0,000 crashes a year).

It wasn’t that long ago that women claimed they were better at multi-tasking, it was their natural skill set. Now we are all at it. And some of us feel if we aren’t we are wasting our time. But how annoying is it when you are on the phone to someone and you can hear them working on a keyboard.. I recently had a conversation with my NatWest business advisor on the phone and his mobile phone went off 3 times but he wouldn’t turn it off even when I asked him to.

Yet it turns out that multi-taskers are less effective. According to research at Stanford University they focus on irrelevant information and everything distracts them. They remember nothing and get less done. They actually take longer to switch between tasks because they think about what they are not doing. They like to be scanning for and flooded with new information rather than deal with what they already have.

It’s estimated by the University of California, San Diego, that we receive 100,000 words, plus images adding up to 34 gigabytes of information a day. The result of this is that our attention span is being chopped into smaller pieces and we are losing the ability to think more deeply. It may even eventually change the structure of our brains. Edward Halliwell, a New York psychiatrist, believes that people have never had to process as much information as they have to nowadays.

He has coined the term “screen sucker” to describe people who spend so much time in front of a computer screen, mobile phone or Blackberry (sometimes referred to as a Crackberry because of its addictive nature). One study showed that when knowledge workers were interrupted by e-mails and phone calls their IQ dropped by 10 points – twice the drop reported for marijuana users. And he too thinks people are so busy processing information at a superficial level that they are losing the ability to think and feel and are losing the ability to connect with other human beings.

Students today are 40% less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago, according to a report in The Times (29/5/10). Today’s “Generation Me” is more narcissistic, self-centred and competitive and less concerned with other people’s feelings. People also see them as more confident and individualistic but less kind.

The decline has been more marked since 2000, attributed to violent video games, social networking sites, and an obsession with TV celebrities. Inflated expectations, competitiveness and hiding weaknesses leaves no time for empathy. Researchers believe that technology has replaced human interaction and  having “friends” online means that you don’t have to respond to their problems.

A month ago Times columnist Sathnan Sanghera was moaning about the difficulties of working from home with all the inherent distractions – although spending 3 hours on social networking couldn’t have helped. He then found the same problems working in the office but some of that was down to actually having social interactions with colleagues. But that can only be a good thing!

Updated 23 August 2010: