Tech overuse at work is a symptom. Your culture is the disease: An interview with behavioral designer Nir Eyal

Human beings have been fighting distractions for thousands of years. Yet, somehow it seems like the battleground has shifted.

Rather than what you’d typically think of as distractions—like entertainment, social media, or procrastination—we’re increasingly hit with tasks and activities that aren’t necessarily a waste of time, but still aren’t the best use of it either.

Especially in the workplace, these “good distractions” have become a major part of the culture. Endless chains of emails, days filled with meetings, and constant pings and notifications take up time for real, focused work.

But are the tools to blame? Or is there something deeper at play?

In the 2nd part of our interview with behavioral designer and best-selling author Nir Eyal, we dive into our overuse of technology in the workplace, and how we can create a culture that allows us to be more focused, less stressed, and do more deep work.

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This is part 2 of our interview with Nir Eyal. In part 1, we covered ways you can take control of the technology in your personal life and fight digital distractions.

Tech overuse at work is just a symptom of a bigger problem

It’s easy for us to blame technology for distracting us at work. (In the same way as it’s easy to blame Facebook/Reddit/Snapchat for stealing our attention the rest of the day).

But the truth is, overusing technology at work is simply a sign of unresolved, bigger issues.

“Tech overuse in the workplace is a symptom. But it’s not the disease,” he says. “The disease is a crappy culture.”

Nir explains that a broken culture manifests itself in the way employees communicate and get their work done. Which is a hard problem to talk about. Diving into interpersonal or behavioral issues is a lot more difficult than blaming the technology that enables them.

“At the end of the day, tech overuse is a problem like any other. If people in the office weren’t cleaning up the break room, we wouldn’t call the Mr Coffee machine company and blame Mr Coffee.”

“We would say, ‘Look, we need a system so that everybody takes responsibility and does their part so we can fix this problem. We just need to talk about it, get it out in the open and fix this.’”

Why it’s so hard to talk about our bad tech habits at work

First off, most leaders don’t have visibility into the issue. They’re getting their coffee from Starbucks, not the break room. And second, when the issues do come up, they think it’s just part of the cost of being in the game.

“People will say ‘We’re a tech company, so we’ve got to be at it 24/7’ or  ‘We’re in customer service and so we’ve always got to be responsive.’ But I can give you tons of examples of companies in those positions who aren’t overloading their team with constant emails and work at all hours.”

Companies like Boston Consulting Group—one of the largest consulting firms in the world—guarantees predictable time off for their employees. Or Slack—makers of one of the most-used team communication tools—who have “work hard and go home” written on the walls of their headquarters.

“Slack’s culture is one where they don’t want people to work nights and weekends. If there’s too much work to do, they hire more people to do it during business hours.”

“So, no. Being constantly bombarded by tech isn’t something that has to be a part of the modern American workplace. And in most cases, if you can’t talk about tech overuse at your company, there’s all sort of other skeletons in the closet that you’re also not talking about.”

“If you can’t talk about technology overuse in the workplace it’s a symptom of crappy culture.”

How “always on” culture is causing burnout and killing creativity

Yet for most companies, the myth that you have to work more and be constantly available persists. Emails are expected to be responded to right away. IM messages are meant to be dealt with the same way as someone coming over to your desk and talking to you.

Whether explicit stated or not, you are expected to be “always on”. However, the unintentional side effect of this cultural shift is that we have less space to be creative.

“Our primary job as knowledge workers is to invent novel solutions to hard problems,” says Nir.

“Unless we have time to think—unless we have time to focus and actually work through these problems—we can’t do real work. We just do busy work.”

Or worse. For many workers, the need to keep up with the communication demands of the current workspace means their work spills out of the office and into their home life.

“What happens to many people, is that they basically email professionally all day and then do their real work off the clock at night.”

This is nothing new, but it’s a persistent problem. There’s no doubt you’ll be more stressed when you feel like you don’t have enough time in the day to finish your important work, or you’re constantly being interrupted by “important” messages and notifications. Stay in this environment long enough and you’ll undoubtedly start suffering from burnout.

Not only is this bad for individuals, but the company suffers as well. As Nir explains:

“It turns out that these companies that have ridiculous tech policies, or frankly no policies, are the ones where people are leaving the most. And we all know how expensive it is when good people leave your organization.”

How to change your company tech culture as a leader or manager

All this is to say that the issues plaguing your company aren’t just the fault of technologies. Yes, being constantly available on Slack, email, or your smartphone adds additional stress. But worse than the tool is having no policy in place to guide how you use it.

For Nir, a big part of his work lately has been talking about just this: How to create a culture around how you use technology in the workplace so your team can be focused, happy, and creative.

First, ask what sort of tech culture your team wants

The first step is to sit down with your employees and ask, what kind of culture do we want with our technology?

Rather than come up with strict rules, like no email after working hours or only X hours a day on Slack (which can simply add more stress), the key is in working together to find a solution:

“When companies set these super strict rules, it tends not to work out so well. Instead, it’s better to have a bespoke solution that people in the organization come up with together. And again, fix the culture itself. Fix the environment where people can bring up issues and not sweep them under the rug.”

Then, go deeper with the conversation

When you create a safe environment, you’re going to dig up more than just issues with tech. At one company, Nir said a simple weekly discussion about time off opened up a Pandora’s box of other issues.

“By opening up a discussion about one topic you actually uncover all these amazing opportunities. One team I worked with discovered new ways they could service their clients and other ways they could become more efficient in their organization, just because they opened the floodgates by talking about tech use in the company.”

These conversations don’t have to be company-wide to start, either.

Instead, Nir suggests starting at a smaller level with just your team or direct reports. Look at your schedules and sync them up based on what works for the entire team. Make it easier for change to happen on a smaller level and then scale it up.

What you can do to highlight the issues you’re facing at work (without looking like a slacker)

All these suggestions are well and good if you’re in a position to make change. But for most workers, there’s still that fear of talking up against the status quo. Even though highlighting these issues can have a positive impact on everyone you work with, it’s hard to be first through the gates.

“Nobody wants the situation to perpetuate. But nobody raises their hand and says ‘this sucks. It’s not working for us,’ because they don’t want to be labeled as a slacker.”

“Now, I’m not going to advise people to storm into their boss’ office and tell them they need to change the tech culture. But there are ways we can make sure the culture will work for us.”

First, Nir says we can screen for the kind of workplace that has an open company culture. This could mean asking questions about how communication happens and whether people can openly speak their mind about policies and issues.

And while not everyone will be candid about these questions, he also says that listening for what isn’t being said can be just as insightful.

Next, we can create a “tech policy of one”. This means being vocal about when you’re available for communication, and when you’re doing deep work.

“Go to your boss and say ‘here’s my calendar. When do you want me to be available?’ Show them when you have calls scheduled. When you’ve got time set aside for key projects. Schedule an hour and a half for email and ask them if they think that’s too much or too little.”

If you sync up like this on a weekly basis to start, eventually the people above you will start to know how you’re spending your days and understand your availability. That way, when the end of the day rolls around and you want to spend time with your family, there’s no surprises.”

Technology isn’t leaving the workplace. And if anything, our lives will only continue to get more complex. Which is why it’s so important to start making steps now towards a balance that lets you get everything done without stress and within the time limit you want.

For Nir, who’s been studying technology and behavior change for close to a decade, the answer is not necessarily in the tools we use, but in the culture surrounding them. Technology helps make things clean and impersonal. But if you want it to work properly, you just might have to get a bit messy.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


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