Is information overload going to swamp your employees?

Is information overload going to swamp your employees?

The technological workplace of the future will place massive demands of the multi-taskers. But there needs to be room for longer-term thinking. Nick Terry reports.

Every year Scottish businesses take on thousands of new people. Meanwhile Scotland’s ‘knowledge economy’ is fast becoming a clique that politicians like to pump out as a matter of course, yet few are considering how it is changing the way we work.

For employees starting out, the work place can be daunting and scary for those faced with arriving on time and long hours of concentration on a single task. Already there is a gap between the needs and expectations of young people entering the work place and the requirements of the employers who pay the wages.

Technology is making young people smarter, more sociable, more expressive and more creative and although they are more digitally distracted than ever, they are much better than adults at dealing with regular disruption at work. Research commissioned by ACAS, the advisory, conciliation and arbitration services, has suggested more must be done to support new people in work and this includes workplace buddies, mentors and talking to family members who have work experience. ACAS has suggested a smoother transition to the world of work and that workplaces must be more receptive and welcoming to new starters.

However, there is also another issue that faces employers in the longer term. The attention spans of an emerging generation are being tested more than ever through the usage of smartphones and other tablet devices. More time is spent online switching between websites while new apps become the next social media fix. Multi-tasking refers to switching attention between tasks. This has an economic cost because a lot of mental effort has been spent on the switch, rather than the task itself. Therefore, as a result of this ‘juggling effect’, the brain becomes less devoted to deeper thinking.

Encountering the digital world is not necessarily about switching between tasks, instead, it as been suggested, it is like a chef keeping an eye on several pots cooking on a hob, checking each one to ensure the meal is not spoiled.

Lydia Plowman,  a professor in education and technology at the University of Edinburgh, recently studied how pre-school children interacted with dual screens, such as iPads and television.

“Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which technology has been used for leisure, work and educational purposes in the home, with a focus on young children and how technology is integrated into family life,” she says in an interview with Wired magazine.

“Based on our very small sample, we had the feeling that operationally, children can do this kind of flipping. My guess is that teens would be able to do that more rapidly and intuitively than these young children, but the adults who are not used to multi-tasking, would not find it any easier.”

This ‘flipping’ is shaping brains to be better prepared to rapidly toggle between tasks, which, in terms of information absorbing, can be short term, instead of allowing the brain to naturally absorb information at its own pace. The implication for businesses over the coming years is that more time will be needed for proper reflection and time spent away from immediate distractions.

Harnessing technology in the correct way can lead to more sustainable learning and better businesses. Heavy multi-taskers are not good at exploiting information, instead they have a tendency to process exploratory information. Other studies have shown that multi-taskers make more mistakes and are worse at remembering information learned during multi-tasking.  Perhaps this suggests that humans are not good at dealing with data bombardment.

Humans have a brilliant capacity to adapt to the world in which they live. Before the arrival of the motor car, people did not worry being hit by motorised traffic when crossing a road. Now this is part and parcel of life along with many other daily distractions. As the world changes, so do our needs to pay attention.

“With the right support, digital media can provide new and intriguing possibilities for the development of young children’s communicative skills. This suggests that, used thoughtfully, technology can enhance rather than hinder social interaction,” says Prof Plowman.

More than 80% of social media consists of announcements about oneself, compared to 30-40% of human speech. This fact suggests that young people are more comfortable communicating about themselves through the use of the internet. The ‘connected generation’ and their employers will need guidance as to get the best out of digital technology and media. There has to be a happy medium between online over-indulgence and productive usage in order to get the smartest and most creative young minds to become the backbone of our economic  future.