Tormented talent

The cacophony of distractions in the modern workplace — including cellphones, e-mails and assorted interruptions — is “dumbing down” employees and reducing their ability to do their job.

Contrary to the assumption that constant exposure to all sources of information is a “good thing”, the intrusion of modern technology is proving a mixed blessing.

A report by the international Deloitte consultancy group says that while technology can provide a 24-hour supply of information, its intrusiveness also prevents workers from concentrating. “One study . found that the average employee switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes, and has a maximum attention span of 12 minutes.”

A recent UK study declared that “the relentless influx of e-mails, phone calls and instant messages received by modern workers can reduce their IQs more than smoking marijuana”. The study found that men are twice as prone to distraction as women.

The Deloitte report, “Connecting people to what matters”, says modern companies are so besotted with “efficient” technology and workplace theories that they risk alienating the asset that ultimately determines business success or failure: their employees.

Relationships, more than business goals and the provision of work tools, are what motivate employees, says the report. To produce their best work, they need to feel “connected” to the company. “Among factors in managing talent, ‘connect’ is emerging as the most important in today’s competitive environment,” says Deloitte. “It is also the aspect of talent management that is least understood and managed.”

Market research in the US shows that the reason given by most people for leaving their jobs is that they don’t feel appreciated. “Relationships fuel the emotional bonds that tie people to an organisation,” says the report. “Their relationships also inspire them to give extra effort — or not. As the saying goes, people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their bosses and coworkers.”

Belinda Knight, CEO of the Johannesburg-based Graduate Institute of Management & Technology, isn’t convinced. It’s human nature to deny responsibility for failure, she says. “If you don’t make a success of your job, you often feel you have to blame someone, so you blame the boss.”

However David Conradie of Deloitte SA says the relationship between employee and manager is very important. “It’s the differentiator between good and bad companies, between wanting to give your best, and not.”

Knight, though, agrees that SA employers, like those overseas, underestimate the importance of personal relationships. “The first line of communication today is e-mail. It should be face-to-face,” she says. According to Deloitte, over 70% of what people know about their jobs is learnt through interactions with colleagues. They will go to a file or database only if they can’t learn what they need from another person. “The vast majority of knowledge resides in people’s heads, not in an organisation’s databases,” says Deloitte.

If interpersonal relationships are secure, employees are more likely to feel a positive relationship with the company. This sense can be heightened by ensuring that employees’ work is motivating, that they have a clear view of the organisation’s strategic mission, and that they understand how their individual effort fits into that mission.

“Organisations that tap people’s hearts, as well as their heads and hands, reap benefits because they inspire people’s discretionary efforts,” says the report. “Yet the majority of people around the world are disengaged in their jobs. They show up, do what’s expected of them but don’t go the extra mile.”

Conradie says that in SA as well, many companies do not understand the need for a “clutter-free” environment. Noise, information overload and endless — often unnecessary — meetings all disrupt efficiency. A number of studies show marked productivity leaps when people are allowed distraction-free time and space to do their job.

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