Can 2018 herald less addictive technologies and boost productivity?

How much blame for poor workplace productivity can we ascribe to multiple technologies fighting each other for our attention? It’s an intriguing idea. 

Productivity growth across the world’s leading economies is weak while the most recent figures available show that output per hour worked in Britain lags way behind the average of other advanced economies in the G7 group of industrialised nations and is failing to grow. 

The reasons for stagnating productivity are myriad – they include the make-up of different economies, standards in education, training, and the skills (or lack of them) held by each workforce; but what about distraction in the workplace? Could this be a factor?  

In an excellent post on the Bank Underground blog, Dan Nixon explores how falling productivity could be seen in this light (in fact, he highlights how during this period of weak productivity growth, smartphone shipments have risen ten-fold). The argument goes that consumer technologies are designed to grab our attention and, consequently, cause constant distraction from our daily tasks. 

So, how might this crisis of attention affect the economy? 

Dan suggests distractions – whether that’s email, smartphone notifications, or even office noise – can lead to weaker productivity as: 

  1. People are directly drawn away from tasks 
  2. A persistently lower capacity for work becomes the norm as the minds of a workforce become habitually distracted 

“The more we have different sources of notifications in the workplace competing for our attention,” Dan writes, “the more we’ll constantly scan different channels in an attempt to stay on top of things. 

“The problem is that this mode of working – termed ‘continuous partial attention’ – serves to fragment our attention, reducing our focus on the task at hand.” 

Distracted moments can easily lead to the formation of bad habits, Dan notes. These habits can, in turn, be encouraged and shaped by technologies such as smartphone apps to the point where they ‘hijack the mind’ (Tristan Harris’s phrase, not mine…). 

One of the methods used in this hijack is technology designed to feed addictive behaviour. The techniques will be familiar to almost everyone: the newsfeeds that auto-refresh and scroll endlessly, sites that cue then play another video after one has just been watched, the ‘read’ messages and notifications that indicate a chat partner is composing a fresh missive for you… 

All of this serves to discourage the user from ceasing their activity and, for those that do escape, notifications can be designed to interrupt whatever else they are doing and drag them back in. 

As the founder of a business that develops software aimed at helping make people more productive at work, I find technology designed specifically to keep people in this addictive loop unsettling. 

Our product allows users to quickly find information that answers their questions, then easily re-use the content. The idea of retaining them simply for retention’s sake seems almost perverse. 

Consumers need to better understand how they are affected by technology design. At the same time, vendors should be discouraged from developing features that encourage addictive behaviour. Features like these are deleterious to productivity and, in my view, can ultimately encourage unhappiness. 

As we head toward 2018, it’s my profound hope that a greater awareness of how technology can be addiction-feeding will eventually help to drive up standards in design and implementation. 

If this thread can be weaved into the development of future technologies; if habit-forming behaviours can be recognised by individuals and discouraged through responsible design; then perhaps we can start to redress some aspects of productivity stagnation and, at the same time, also start to live happier and more rewarding lives. 

That’s certainly food for thought for 2018… 

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

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