December 11, 2023

Standard deviation

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In my last post I wrote about smartphones and other personal devices, and their tendency to distract us by diverting our attention.  This is a continuation.

Distractions in the workplace are common. They interrupt the flow of work. An email pops up on your desktop screen asking for your ‘urgent’ attention, Facebook messenger pings on your smartphone telling you someone has responded to your earlier status update. A colleague phones you to invite you out to lunch, and then you get talking….

Interruption at work can have serious consequences. The proliferation of technologies such as smartphones, social media and email means employees are increasingly exposed to task interruption. Yes, technology in the workplace can be indispensable. It provide important support and offers numerous benefits to help us work better and smarter. However, technology can remove us one step away from the task, and can cause us to deviate from our focus.

As Curtis (2004) writes, the digital age has introduced a spatial shift where we are explicitly and implicitly connected to each other as never before. Ostensibly, this is very useful for communication at all levels, but ubiquitous, continuous connectivity can come with a cost.

First there is the social impact: Communication technology may create a psychological distance between people; it can have detrimental effects on our concentration. Studies have shown that greater dialogue can lessen the psychological distance between people, but psychological distance may increase with colocated colleagues and friends when devices distract us. Two friends are in conversation. It is interrupted by a notification on a smartphone. Now less attention is being paid to the other person than is socially expected. A deviation occurs – an interruption of the normal and acceptable social conventions of conversation and interaction.

Secondly, distraction due to overuse of personal devices may also create serious workplace issues and challenges. Research has shown that when we become distracted, we are often more error prone, and once interrupted, it may be more difficult to resume the task, or even to forget the task completely. Such deviation from tasks can seriously effect productivity, and may compromise the health and safety of self and others. Interruptions to a task can lead to feelings of increased stress and anxiety, frustration, and can increase the incidence of errors. Distractions can also lead to poor decision making and inevitably increase task completion time (Lee and Duffy, 2015). In short, productivity can be adversely affected.

How can organisations address these issues and problems?

[Continues in next post]

Curtis, M. (2004) Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age. London: Futuretext.
Lee, B. C. and Duffy, V. J. (2015) The Effects of Task Interruption on Human Performance: A Study of the Systematic Classification of Human Behavior and Interruption Frequency, Human Factors and Ergonomics in Manufacturing and Service Industries, 25 (2) 137–152.

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Standard deviation by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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