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The Psychology of Human Attention and Engagement - Digital Platforms and The Changing World of Work

On the last flight out of Goa to Manchester the day before India stopped flights and lockdown began in the UK, I asked one of the cabin crew if I could buy some duty free. She said; “You might as well buy what you can as you can’t even get a shopping trolley at Tesco’s.” At that moment I knew my life was going to be different.

On lockdown I could see I had to use digital platforms to a far greater extent than I had before. I had been talking with others about working remotely for ages, and now it was forced on us. At first, I thought it was just me who was struggling and worried about the viability of my internet connection as well as becoming familiar with new ways of communicating.

I have been used to one main way of working for the past 30 years and I realised I was wanting to hold onto the world that I had lost. This was a world of work that I liked and had become attached to and happy with; why would I want to change it? I started to become cross but then I thought; “Well my profession is about helping people to cope with change, I’ll have to have a word with myself and follow my own best practice!”

Normally I meet most people face to face with only the odd video call but currently all my communication is via the Internet. We’ve been forced to believe that by clicking a mouse or trackpad we are transported into a world of meeting people equivalent to real life meetings. With a fair wind, a good internet connection and a reasonably decent looking jumper or shirt then we are off. We need to recognise that it is not the same; not better or worse but certainly different. And what are some of those differences?

I’ve heard this from many people that online working, “real time" learning and real time meetings brings its own particular demands. It can take a different form of concentration as we need to use a different part of our brain to manage this form of communication and working.

In my work as Organisational Development Practitioner to organisations in the public sector I have had a great opportunity to ask people what they thought of the new way of communicating, warts and all. Many have said that they are suffering screen communication fatigue. I have experienced this myself. It can be very tiring.

Then I thought, “I just can’t be alone, and more people must be having the same or similar issues”. So, over the past three months, I have asked over 100 people what they thought, and this is some of what they said. They:

“Have missed the human connection and the usual way that people have contact at work.”

“Have missed the impromptu conversations - communicating online puts everything into strict compartments.”

“Find the flow on conversation very stilted and working online less fun and less fluid.”

“Lose a lot of the usual non-verbal cues when talking and can’t feel how we could best respond, never mind the time lag when talking over the digital platform; that can sometimes make it even harder.”

“Find that the time structuring and order of the virtual meetings gives us limited time to zone out even if it’s only for a few minutes.”

“Are easily distracted with other things happening on the screen and at home.”

“Have difficulty structuring time and the lack of structure in the day and the week has been difficult.”

“Finding a way to tune in and out and to move away from the screen is hard, it feel like I’m stuck to it.”

“Get a bit lost, lose attention after a while and often get bored.”

Bit of background

Humans have been communicating in the same space and place since time began, how can we think that we can change all that virtually overnight without its takings its toll

According to Emma Elsworthy from the Independent 28 Dec 2017 “The average British person has an attention span of just 14 minutes.”

Motorists lose focus on where they are and drive on autopilot just 10 minutes into the journey.

A recent poll found, in face to face meetings, workers are unable to focus on what is being said for longer than 13 minutes before they zone out.

While enjoying a social engagement the study says it’s still only around 29 minutes before people reach for their phone even when they are interested.

What I have learned the psychology of engagement and connection

Every 5 minutes reconnect with the audience/meeting. For example, this could be asking them to:

  • Write something in the chat box

  • Give a thumbs up or down, give a wave

  • Forage for something. I’ve asked people to look for something yellow or blue or maybe sparkly. It’s up to you what you choose.

Do a regular check in … this only needs to be brief; we are looking to keep people’s attention, there’s no need to open up a big debate. Play must at break. Encourage everybody to use the camera, if people are not using the camera it’s harder to be connected and difficult to know if someone is engaged.

Remember we are all learning about this way of working, we are in this together. Like any other scenario some people will have more confidence than others.

Make sure people have time to connect with each other, to settle in and to establish relationships. Ensure that people feel they have a voice, get everyone to say something in the opening minutes and maybe as they check out. “Virtual handshakes” are important for connectivity.

Ask people how they are getting on with the platform and encourage participants to help each other with the learning needed. People sometimes need reassurance and little things can get in the way, for example, someone may forget they’ve turned their computer volume down but, as they are so concerned with all the requirements of the platform, they haven’t checked their computer volume when they can’t hear others.

Make a contract about how you will be with each other at the start of the meeting and refer to it very briefly when you meet next. the contract may include something about using mobile phones, time keeping, confidentiality and sharing. It’s also important that we work out how people are able to make their contributions and recognise when and how to give people space.

Encourage people to work in sub-groups of two or three, who can interact online comfortably with less formality than is needed in the larger meetings.

Recognise that people are likely to be interrupted by pets, children or their partners. Take it in your stride and accept that it’s part of the territory

Give regular breaks. at least 5 minutes after an hour … if the meeting is 3 hours long the break MUST be 20 minutes in my opinion.

At the end of the day find a way to enjoy what you’re doing, encourage others to do the same and find some personal space to manage any frustrations that emanate from having to work in such a different and potentially difficult way. Be kind to yourself and your colleagues!

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