Award-winning columnist and author of Distracted, Maggie Jackson offers her insights about “The @ Work State of Mind Project”—a joint effort of gyro a global B2C and B2B idea shop, and Forbes Insights. Surveying 543 business decision-makers, we found that boundaries of time and space that once defined the workplace no longer exist. To download the complete report go to www.gyro.com/atwork
In 1926, Henry Ford instituted a controversial shift change at his growing automotive empire: the weekend. To the ire of many other manufacturers, Ford closed shop on Saturdays, giving his workers the new-fangled ritual of two days off a week. His move was the high point of a short-lived historic experiment. Remember the weekend, when men and women valiantly tried to keep work and home separate, equal and unadulterated?
Now, of course, we work anywhere, and most of the time. Work is in our pocket, spilling into homes, weekends, vacations and bedrooms. Nearly 40 percent of mobile workers with PDAs now wake up at night at times to check them, at least occasionally, according to a quarterly survey of mobile enterprise workers by iPass.
Does this blurring of boundaries signify an easy return to a pre-industrial past, when we lived over the store or on the farm? Are we sliding seamlessly back into integrated lives? No. For most of human history, work and home were blended due to the restriction of experience. Geographic distance and the rhythms of sun and season limited the circumference of our work and home lives. Trade, like war, ceased at sunset. Entire lives centered on the same corner of earth.
Today we multitask in nanoseconds on a global scale, moving restlessly in thought and body across the planet. Forty percent of offices lie vacant on any given day, according to Deloitte. Bankers shift their hours to the midnight darkness of each monetary mess. We rarely speak of anything being “too far away” anymore. “Long weeks within a single community are unusual; a full day within a single neighborhood is becoming rare,” writes sociologist Kenneth Gergen in The Saturated Self. The @Work State of Mind arises from an expansion of experience.
What is the impact of these extraordinary changes? Surely, we are light-footed and nimble-minded. And yet always-on work forces us to constantly negotiate what we are doing, individually and collectively. Who changes the diaper when both spouses return from work exhausted? How do you sync a team spread across six time zones and three alternative work arrangements? Throughout the day, the average worker switches tasks on average every three minutes; half the time, they are interrupting themselves, according to studies by Gloria Mark, a professor of Informatics at the University of California Irvine. Perhaps this is why the @Work study reveals that among today’s decision-makers, a sense of accomplishment correlates with an ability to separate work and personal life. Without at least a few borderlines, we cannot find terra firma in an unshackled world.
A constant negotiation of attention is our foremost challenge. At heart, paying attention well is a matter of judicious boundary making. Focus, or “orienting” in science parlance, is akin to a spotlight of the mind, allowing us to filter what’s secondary and go deep into thought. Awareness opens our sensory floodgates, making us sensitive to our wider surroundings. Finally, executive attention fuels our abilities to plan, prioritize and weigh conflicting data. Attention isn’t singular, scientists are now discovering. It’s a multifaceted skill set that is a secret to thriving in an always-on era. How we attend shapes how we rest, play, create, manage, communicate and love.
Hopping from task to task, juggling interruptions, layering time is our default work style, although research conclusively shows that we cannot multitask very well. Beyond simple tasks such as folding laundry and watching television, we are often slow, prone to error and intellectually half-asleep when we multitask. And those who do it the most tend to do it most poorly, according to a 2009 study by Stanford University scientist Clifford Nass. The habit trains them to be “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Nass. Skimming, surfing, task switching are crucial “literacies” of this new age. But they must be balanced by time for deep focus, analysis, reflection and—dare I say it? —calm. @Work needn’t be a monotone state of mind.
Remember the weekend? It varied the pace of life, placing a boundary around something worthwhile. Put in place to protect people from the burden of never-ending work, over time the weekend, nevertheless, came to exemplify the rigidity of the boundary-centric Industrial Age. Now liberated from the confines of space and time, will we be remembered by future generations as the people who forgot the art of the limit?
Maggie Jackson is an award-winning columnist and author of Distracted