Our Attention Deficit Work Culture

Our Attention Deficit Work Culture

In San Francisco, a private high school challenged its Seniors to go without their digital devices for a week. Phones were collected and off the students went into their own private purgatories. How long could they last? The Principal thought it would not be long. He saw their humanity slipping away into digital space.

It was not a successful experiment. Within 24 hours, 20% of the students succumbed and got their phones back; 48 hours—another 50% gave in; 3 days—only 10% were left. No one lasted a week. But those who lasted more than 2 days reported better conversations and more fun with their friends.

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
-Albert Einstein

The Quest for Balance

We don’t do much better at work. Our lives are defined by the “ping, ping, ping” of our digital devices, rather than the needs of our businesses or our people. Every second or two there is a new message that demands immediate attention and we respond with near-Pavlovian precision. We have an Attention Deficit Work Culture (ADWC). And it’s getting worse rather than better. It’s like people feeling compelled to text while they drive or walk, with almost no regard for others. We have become digital extensions of the Internet. There appears to be no balance or counterweight. One company tried by turning off the “ping” feature in their systems so that the workforce could focus on real work.

In other words, our digital interfaces have seduced us into the position of not having the discipline or will to resist them. Over time, this subservient habit leads us deeper and deeper into the cavern of ADWC. The strategic gets subordinated to the operational, and our work lives become so thoroughly transactional that we may lose focus on the real challenges we face. Sub-optimization at its finest.

I know we have to have connectivity, so this is not an anti-technology rant. But it is an appeal for greater balance, self-discipline, mutual accountability, and human-to-human relationships. I think we lose our humanity, and often our civility, when we relate to the world through our digital devices. Just 15 years ago they didn’t exist. But we cannot, and should not, roll the clock back.

We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human race.
-John Naisbitt

Our Challenge, Our Choice

Our work culture challenge, then, remains building workplaces fit for the human spirit—not bits of code. It is to model the way toward cultures that enable us to be our best selves, to serve each other, to innovate and create, to solve real problems.

As Jacque Ellul, author of The Technological Society said 40 years ago (paraphrased): the biggest challenge human beings will have in the age of technique, is to maintain our humanity in the face of overwhelming technological advances—and to not subordinate ourselves to the machine.

As we enter the unknown worlds of artificial intelligence, will we be able to maintain our humanity? Or will we each just become another digit in the Attention Deficit Work Culture? We each have a choice.

About the Author

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Edward Marshall

Faculty Dr. Edward Marshall is an adjunct professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and Managing Partner of The Marshall Group, LLC, where he works with companies to build leadership cultures based on trust and collaboration. You can contact him at: edward@marshallgroup.com, 919.265.9616.