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The limits of human productivity
Forty years past ICT revolution, making business without advanced IT technologies is difficult to imagine. There are 5 billion network connected devices around and the number is expected to increase fourfold within a decade. What are the threats of such a widespread use of technology?
Innovations like internet, cloud computing and mobile connectivity have given their users access to information from anywhere in the world. New technologies speed up communication and facilitate the collection and processing of information. For at least 20 years, scientists have claimed that unlimited access to information has become a plethora that is just one step away from what psychologists call information overload.
The main symptoms of overload include a feeling of constant fatigue, attention deficit and impaired memory. In extreme cases ocular pain, pain in the neck and lower back might be observed, as well as heart rhythm disorders due to prolonged stress. Chronic information overload leads to professional burnout and may cause problems with conceptual thinking, creativity and in-depth analysis.
Yet an average employee checks his/her mailbox 50-100 times a day! This behavior significantly impacts their productivity at work! According to the scientists, only one phone call or email message may temporarily lower the IQ by 10 points (source: a survey by TNS Research and Prof. Glenn Wilson, King's College London University, 2005).
The fact that it is not an isolated and unimportant problem is proved by its scale. Depending on study, chronic discomfort related to overload is reported by 30-40% of employees. Any unexpected disruptions at work, followed by attempts to focus again may take up to 30% of an individual employee's working time, which only in the USA generates losses amounting to 36 billion of man-hours annually (source: a study conducted by Basex, 2004, 2006).
Conquering information overload starts at the employee's desk. Discipline, healthy habits and skillful time management can be the game changers here. According to the gurus of personal productivity, such as David Allen, author of the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, and Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project and advocate of the “corporate athletes” concept, the most important tools in tackling information overload are the following: well-structured day schedule where the most difficult tasks should be handled first, dividing complex actions into simple tasks that can be completed in just a few steps and the ability to achieve a repeatable state of deep concentration interlaced with periods of total relaxation.
Employers can also significantly contribute to protecting their staff from information overload. Below are three basic rules that will help you to combat information overload.
Keep requirements under control
Almost all issues related to information overload and professional burnout of employees stem from excessive or unrealistic demands of their employers. At least some of the issues can be solved by introducing appropriate organizational culture, flexible working model or after hours activities.
However, everything begins with implementing a sound electronic communication policy within the company. In some companies, such policy even defines the way subject and body of messages should be worded. It also controls the extent to which internet communicators and short text and multimedia messaging services can be used.
Other organizations go for setting just a few simple rules of electronic information exchange. For example at Intel – the pioneer in combating information overload that introduced the first electronic communications standards as early as 1996 – employees follow three simple rules. The first rule is a “quiet time” for four hours, once a week, when workers can disconnect their electronic devices, completely devoting themselves to conceptual work. According to the second rule, on a designated day of the week, workers should communicate without using any electronic means. The third rule says that internal emails can be replied to within 24 hours. In this way, employees were freed from the pressure of having to quickly react to every “electronic alert”, at the same time being encouraged to exercise more discipline in electronic communications.
Create an employee-friendly environment
It is a long-known fact that office spaces can be designed in a way that facilitates achieving certain results, such as productivity increase, more innovation or better communication.When struggling to tackle overload and burnout, try to organize sufficient common space for interactions between workers, individual work and active relaxation. The “new old” trends in this field have been set recently by Facebook with its new headquarters opened in 2015 (a 40.000 m2 building), designed as a totally open space. It will accommodate up to 3 thousand workers, who will be given access to cafés, fitness clubs and even a designated park next to the building.
User-friendly work tools
Combating information overload gives the designers responsible for the ergonomic features of IT systems plenty of room to show their skills. The simpler and more intuitive application operation is and, at the same time, the more integrated all IT solutions are, the less time and energy their users need to find the information they are searching for.
IT service providers can be of help with ordering and integrating ICT solutions as well as sharing them in the form of integrated platforms. They usually are the most experienced in analyzing any bottlenecks in system-supported business processes and in evaluating the quality of IT solutions, while these are never perfect. Good integration, support for users and continuous alignment of systems with their needs may work like a “vitamin” that will boost the company's strength in overcoming information overload.
Tackling information overload is a task for those who are responsible for organizing work in companies. Their efforts should be followed by actions aimed at optimizing IT solutions used by the employees. Better organization combined with improving the ergonomic features of IT systems may help to solve the problem that makes lives of tens of millions of workers more difficult across the globe.