Information bombards employees on a daily basis, making it difficult for them to remain productive. A new responsibility of adaptive leadership is finding ways to help staff manage the digital information flood.
— By Jill Motley
Technology has been transforming workplaces in a number of ways, including the way employees manage their job responsibilities. The tools have made people more productive and connected, but in the yin and yang of life, it also has a not-so-positive side. Call it information overload or technostress, but employees are bombarded by information flowing from digital technologies, and many have reached their limit in the law of diminishing returns.
Digital technologies, including mobile, have become a threat to productivity as the flood of information consumes people’s attention in a random manner, forcing them to spend their time trying to navigate through the information rather than efficiently using it.
Too much information turns a quest for knowledge into a management challenge as the relentless information flow increases organizational risks. Organizational leaders must empower employees to understand and manage technology in a positive and productive manner.
Through Digital Technologies
People often say “TMI” for “too much information” when someone would share too many details about something or a story they did not want to hear. TMI has a new meaning today, as employees struggle to deal with a constant flow of information delivered via digital technologies.
The flow only intensified with the introduction of mobile technology, turning work-life balance into work-life out of balance. Information not only flows relentlessly; digital communications like email and texting have made it easy to type and send messages that are really no more than distractions that interfere with productivity.
In a knowledge economy, converting information to knowledge seems like the right thing to do in order to succeed. There are some good aspects to digital overload, but to enjoy these aspects requires training and awareness.
Employees must learn to develop a laser-sharp ability to extract critical information and make good choices concerning where attention is placed. They have to learn to make quick decisions about time management. Will the employee learn a new program update, answer emails, contribute comments and ideas to a technology-based work group, or read the health resources digital newsletter?
The skill needed to manage a constant information flow is also a skill that can carry over into the employee’s personal life, contributing to work-life balance.
Stressed by Technology
Despite the potential positives, people have their limits. As information flows unceasingly, stress builds when people do not have the ability to manage their work. Stressors include the unrelenting changes that must be mastered – software updates, new technologies, new screen functionalities, social media-based communication with consumers and businesses in the global marketplace, and Web-based meetings.
Mastering the technology is one step. Integrating it into work flows is another and more complex process.
When people are pressured or stressed, they have a greater tendency to make poor decisions. Believing it will increase efficiency, an employee may install personal software on a work computer, increasing the risk of security breaches. Another employee may hurriedly dash off a rude response to a customer which goes viral. Employees are also more likely to make decisions based on the most current information rather than all the information needed to make good decisions. Another employee visits websites looking for quick answers and exposes the company to malware.
Organizations also lose valuable talent because the employees simply cannot manage the stress. These risks can have dire consequences for the organization, making digital technology overload a management issue.
In addition, every minute an employee spends just trying to keep up with digital technologies is a minute not spent on creative thinking, innovation or productive work.
Mastering Digital Technologies
How can managers help employees avoid digital overload? One of the most important ways is through training. Employees need to fully understand how technology impacts their work and personal lives – the positives and negatives. As work information flows invade personal lives, people find their stress is doubled.
Just training employees on technology management for work ignores the fact that the line between work and personal lives is blurred. The information flow is continuous. Training should address the informed use of technology, such as prioritizing emails deserving of responses or being able to prioritize cellphone calls or messages.
There are some good aspects to digital overload, but to enjoy these aspects requires training and awareness.
Mindful technology events can raise awareness of technology management and contribute to a culture in which employees are aware of the distractions technology creates. These lessons can be carried into personal lives where controlling disruptive technology can lead to more enriched times with family and friends.
Training should also include teaching employees how to use the new functionalities that have meaning to their work. Brief, generic workshops tend to contribute to information overload rather than help employees balance information. They get a lot of information in a short period of time on common application features and must then return to their desks and try to figure out how the information specifically applies to their job duties.
Users need time to play around with the technology and have access to people who can answer questions when answers are needed. Employees should also have opportunities to network with others and share experiences and learning in the use of technology. The simple truth is that people perform much better and are more motivated when they understand others are struggling, too, and when people share their mistakes, techniques, efficiency strategies, tips for mastering programs, work arounds, and experiences.
In addition, organizations can offer training on the mental, physical, and emotional impacts of information overload. It is similar to the concept of stress management in that employees are given opportunities to learn techniques for time management, information prioritizing, and strategies for managing stress related to technology overload. Some companies are instituting policies like discouraging answering emails on Friday afternoons or connecting with work during non-work hours.
At the same time, management must create ways to measure and monitor employees and their productivity. It is important for managers to recognize loss of productivity due to technostress. This is an employee engagement issue.
Stressed employees will become increasingly disengaged, and that influences job satisfaction, productivity, and retention. It is no longer enough to provide employees access to technology without also providing training on its management.