The Unfounded Link Between Connectivity and Productivity
And why your responsiveness should not be the measure of your work.
Despite my affinity for new technologies, using instant messaging at work has always struck me as counterproductive.
Whether it’s Slack, Microsoft Teams, or similar solutions, the apparent benefits of these tools seem to come at the expense of overall productivity.
These apps, combined with our dependence on smartphones, have redefined the rules of communication at work.
It’s almost impossible to get away from them since they follow us everywhere, comfortably tucked in our pockets.
The result: constant connectivity has become the default work culture.
Employees are expected to read and respond to messages immediately, or be penalized.
Yet, the culture of connectivity is one of the main causes of distraction in the workplace.
As far as I’m concerned, constant connectivity is counterproductive, and I will prove it to you.
When connectivity becomes counterproductive
People working in professional services (consultants, financial services, accountants, lawyers, etc.) are particularly affected by the culture of constant connectivity.
It’s commonplace in these circles to think that being constantly available to the client is proof of professionalism and quality of service.
Yet the relationship between constant connectivity and quality of work has never been proven.
To verify this, two American researchers, Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter, spent four years studying the behavior of professionals at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the world’s most prestigious consulting firms.
Before beginning the study, the researchers surveyed over 1,000 consulting professionals to better understand their work habits.
94% claimed to work more than 50 hours a week, and almost half more than 65 hours a week.
This does not include the 20 to 25 hours spent checking email outside of work (at the time of the study, mainly on their BlackBerrys, but we can assume that this phenomenon persists, if not worsens with the use of smartphones).
In their experiment at BCG, the researchers imposed a radical method by asking a small group of consultants to take an entire day off in the middle of their working week.
During this day, they were forbidden to work and to read their emails or any other form of professional communication.
A second group was similarly disconnected, but only after 6 p.m., once a week.
This test aimed to measure the effects of total disconnection on the participants’ quality of work and well-being.
The experiment was initially greeted with resistance, as most participants were afraid of disappointing their clients or reducing their chances of promotion.
Measuring the quality of a consultant’s work can be very difficult, and although methods exist, their performance is often based on the number of hours worked.
Presenteeism wins the day.
With this in mind, the researchers were able to launch their test and force some of the staff to take a day off in the middle of the week.
At the start of the experiment, participants were asked to rate the following statement: “I feel respected for setting boundaries.” (rated from 1 for “strongly disagree” to 7 for “strongly agree”).
In the first month, the team responded with an average score of 3.7.
After five months, this score rose to 5.2.
The study also showed that all participants in this experiment wished to keep a portion of their time totally disconnected.
Even more astonishing, 76% of those who didn’t participate in the study also wanted to be included in the experiment after hearing about it.
Participants also reported greater job satisfaction, a greater chance of establishing a long-term career with the company, and a better work-life balance.
Notably, participants also reported delivering better quality work to their customers.
This experiment shows us that, despite the culture established in this group, its usefulness is unfounded.
However, without questioning it, it seems to persist and even worsen with the new tools available.
Why does constant connectivity persist?
The answer may come as a surprise, but it’s pretty clear: it’s because it’s easy.
Being constantly connected and reactive is easier than trying to create barriers to distraction.
Being reactive is easier than planning long-term tasks.
Letting yourself be disturbed is simpler than refusing to be interrupted.
In short, the culture of connectivity benefits from our laziness.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, calls this phenomenon the “Principle of Least Resistance” and defines it as follows:
“The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.”
Two natural forces drive the Least Resistance Principle:
Personal need: If you can get an immediate response to a problem, work becomes “easier.” The need to plan disappears. We then indulge in a reactivity that takes the weight off our shoulders, to the detriment of the group’s concentration.
Performance measurement: In an environment where constant connectivity is accepted, even encouraged, it’s easier to keep up with the general flow. Instead of developing personal organization skills, it’s easier to react to the next email. The fact that performance is indexed to reactivity encourages the preservation of this behavior.
It’s easier, for example, to forward an email to a whole team in the hope of receiving a constructive opinion, than to reflect on the content of the email and make a personal analysis.
The result: context-free emails asking only “What do you think?” abound in our inboxes (and distract us from more important tasks).
The Least Resistance Principle is the primary source of our addiction to constant connectivity.
Basically, being connected all the time is lazy.
Instead of trying to structure our time, we prefer to let ourselves be carried along by the current of communication.
We end up assessing our worth by the number of emails we read and process per day, rather than by the tasks we actually complete.
And our managers do the same because they are themselves carried by the Principle of Least Resistance.
It’s possible to extricate ourselves from this negative connectivity, but it takes effort to set up rules that are beneficial in the long term.
How to escape constant connectivity?
The method below aims to set limits on the amount of time you spend on communication, so that you can regain control of your time and concentration:
1/ Set strict, non-negotiable limits
Start by choosing a time slot reserved for rest, during which all professional communication will be prohibited.
For example, disconnect completely after 6 p.m. and during weekends.
This first step aims to give you time to recharge your attention daily (using a closing ritual at the end of the day can also help).
2/ Communicate transparently
Your limits must be clearly communicated to your professional entourage.
Talk about it with those around you, whether your superior or your customers.
Explain that your work's result will be better if you can recharge your batteries daily.
Everyone can understand this (and often, even envy you).
3/ Define blocks of full concentration
Connectivity is also a problem during the day, and these distractions prevent you from completing the most important tasks.
To concentrate fully, define times when all forms of communication are forbidden.
If you work in an office and are constantly disturbed, use headphones and explain that you are not to be disturbed when you wear them.
The goal here is to reduce the constant distractions so that you can rediscover deep concentration.
4/ Compartmentalize your schedule
Once you’ve established the basics, organizing your time into specific compartments will be easier.
For example, define specific times for reading and replying to emails (twice a day is sufficient).
Likewise, define time slots during which you will accept meetings.
The rest of the time should be devoted to deep, concentrated work.
Tip: Inserting scheduled breaks into your day to get some fresh air and take a walk will help you recharge your batteries.
As we saw with the BCG example, constant connectivity persists because it is almost impossible to demonstrate that its opposite is more effective.
In a world where the Principle of Least Resistance reigns, alternatives to constant connectivity are often ignored.
Challenging this paradigm takes courage.
It requires reflection on the true meaning and value of work.
If being constantly reactive doesn’t suit you, it’s time to try another method.
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