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Dazed and Confused

Optimize Blog - November 12, 2010 - 0 comments

In our line of work we use surveys widely – often 360 degree assessments, general employee engagement surveys or corporate diagnostic surveys which look at the general ‘health’ of the client organization. So we were interested in a recent piece of research from our friends over at Harvard University and their latest survey results.
Interestingly, for this piece of research Harvard decided to adopt a particularly ‘modern’ approach and made use of an iPhone survey app to manage the process. More than 2200 volunteers downloaded the application and agreed to partake in the survey. The app then surveyed them about their thoughts and mood at random times of day and night. Participants, when contacted, selected what they were doing at that particular moment from a menu and noted whether they were actually thinking about that specific activity and how happy or sad they felt.
After gathering 250,000 survey results, the Harvard team concluded that this group of people spent 46.9% of their time awake with their minds wandering. The study suggested minds wander, even from demanding tasks, at least 30% of the time. This is supported by other research already undertaken which confirms that people are easily distracted.
Dr Matthew Killingsworth, one of the researchers, said: “Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities. This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.”
Professor Nilli Lavie, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, said that while any attempt to try to measure the wandering mind was “heroic”, the results of the study might be rendered less reliable by the type of participant it attracted. She said that “Mind-wandering may simply be ubiquitous in the type of person who is engaging in this type of iPhone application, and who is prepared to be distracted from whatever they are doing in this way.”
However, she did go on to say that her own laboratory research had found similar or even higher levels of mind-wandering among subjects given less demanding tasks to complete.
Now, regardless of your propensity to engage with the myriad of apps available for all things beginning with a small ‘i’ this is an interesting bit of research which informs our day to day business practices and the fact that we recognize that some of our team members may often appear distracted from the cause.
The critical question then, “is how to keep them more focused and engaged?” and the answer is perhaps that we can start with giving them meaningful work. Clearly, in the work environment, there are often things that need to be done that are far from exciting – the boring, mundane tasks that everyone leaves until last. However, even these tasks become meaningful if as the leader you can make the direct connection from the task to the corporate goals (we call this the ‘line of sight’ principle). And the priciple even applies to filing. Paint a picture of a business whose filing is in disrepair – unable to find client files, re-work, errors and wasted time locating bits of paper essential to move on to the next task. However the business with a sound, up to date filing system will be able to react quicker and will have far less frustrations.
The other key message here is also around resourcing and workforce planning. Just because the contract says 40 hours per week does not mean you have 40 hours of productive time available from each of your team members. Even when you base your planning on 65% utilization – which is considered 90th percentile and ‘world class’ – this further element of day dreaming needs to be factored in if not from the standpoint of scheduling work then at least so that you can do something about it to keep your people more focused and more engaged.
Look around you. Is your office conducive to day dreaming and distraction or are you working hard to provide meaningful work and engagement?

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