If you have been reflecting on your job or work recently and maybe compared it to what it was like say 10 years ago, you may have noticed that it feels quite different now. At least that is our impression from talking to lots of people and observing those who we coach.
We believe that what has changed significantly in the last 10 years are the levels of noise and complexity in office-based work. The increasing level of noise is a direct consequence of an ‘always-on’ mentality enabled by smartphones and encouraged by social media (both were in their infancy 10 years ago). There has been a lot of reporting on this problem and what it is doing to our brains – reducing our ability to concentrate, compelling us to chase meaningless rewards and increasing levels of stress and anxiety are all confirmed side effects of this trend.
It is obviously not unique to office-based work, but what is unique is that the complexity of work and decisions has increased in parallel in these workplaces. Responding to the noise already imposes a permanent cognitive load on your brain. Combined with the increased complexity of work means even more cognitive load, often to the point of overload.
What is really concerning about this trend is that these additional demands on cognitive processing are ‘crowding out’ both the ability and desire to pay attention to people, their needs and behaviours. This is strange twist on evolution, as our cognitive ability evolved to improve our capacity to socialise, empathise and cooperate with large numbers of people. Now extensive demands on this cognitive ability for ‘non-social’ purposes (and social media is not social, its concerned with self-worth, status, significance and triggering the basic emotional reward circuits in the brain) means that social relationships are suffering in the workplace and our ability and desire to invest time in understanding others is reduced to the point of non-existence in many instances.
A recent example from our coaching work might help to illustrate the point. We were engaged by a senior manager and HR to ‘fix’ a very senior technical professional who had been in conflict with both his previous and current manager over his behaviour at work. The person in question is a perfectionist, which is common in these types of roles. Perfectionists when challenged become defensive and can come across as rude, nit-picky or non-responsive. They also tend to be late in delivering tasks and will openly criticise other people’s standard of work. None of this is new. What is new is the inability of both managers to recognise the pattern and pay attention to its implications for managing a person like that. Neither understood the person’s personality nor recognised the perfectionist behaviour pattern.
There are plenty of similar examples, I chose the perfectionist pattern because it is so obvious. We started coaching 20 years ago and we would say that this extremely low level of investment into understanding people and their behaviour is new and linked to the aforementioned lack of cognitive capacity. When we sit managers down, and we are talking about people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and talk them through the patterns, they get it. They just never took the time to observe the person and their specific behaviour, recognise the patterns and decide on a course of action based on the observable patterns, not on what happens in the moment. The result is that many office-based work environments we come across feel more fragile, more people seem stressed, anxious, emotionally immature, there is less camaraderie and less cohesion.
We believe that this shift is going to continue and affect more work places. The main reasons are that we have not yet found a way to reign in the negative effects of social media usage and that the trend in most office-based work places is towards atomisation, not collaboration (despite endless pronouncements to the opposite). The latter can be understood as a by-product of cost-cutting through outsourcing, offshoring and automatisation, all of which require reduced collaboration to be successful.
This is obvious in relation to offshoring and outsourcing – increased distance and diverging incentives produce reduced collaboration. It may be less obvious in relation to automatisation, but what can currently and increasingly be automated are discrete tasks. So, for example, AI is now better than any clinician at diagnosing images (CT scans, MRI etc.), but it can’t yet explain the results to the patient. The number of tasks that can be automated is increasing rapidly and will continue to do so. What is not keeping pace is the ability to atomise jobs to match the potential for automation, but the pressures to do so are rising daily.
Where will this lead and what, if anything, can you do about it? Answering these questions is far from trivial. We believe pressures on cognitive load will continue to increase further and collaboration will continue to be undermined by the need to cut costs and automate. For how long is very difficult to predict, but the next financial crisis will make the situation worse, not better.
Is there anything you can do? Short of reducing your work hours and giving up social media, not really. The very least you can do is switch of all notifications on your phone, including the LED (and bin your smartwatch if you are wearing one). In addition, you can deliberately make time for technology-free face-to-face contact at work. This can include meetings, but only if you decide to pay attention to the people and their behaviour, not what they are talking about.