As we enter the summer months of warmer weather, brighter evenings and summer holidays, how many of us will be checking in on the office until the very last moment before we step on the plane? Technology had made it easier for us to stay connected but it’s these moments when the digital deluge seems to sweep us away and rather than using our holiday time as an opportunity to focus on other activities, we become distracted by the information we might be missing in the office.
As recent research for Microsoft shows, the digital deluge is affecting everybody, and not in a good way. Our survey, Defying Digital Distraction, suggests that nearly half of the UK’s office workers are suffering from ‘Infobesity’, the over-consumption of information. It’s making us unhappy, is bad for our health, and hurts our productivity. A summer holiday is an opportunity to re-evaluate the way we engage with information, and ultimately become more productive.
We could blame technology for our problems. From the moment we wake up to the second we tuck in for the night, we want to be connected. But do we really need to check our mobile devices constantly "just in case work sends us something important" (40% of us do), and does the last act before going to bed really have to be a final glance at the news and email feed (52% of us think it’s necessary). There must be something wrong with the office culture in many companies when 45% of workers feel that they should reply to work email instantly – no matter where they are or what they’re doing.
The problem goes much deeper than we realise – and is much easier to fix than we think. We are but the first generation of our digital society. We have allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by too much information. We spend our workdays chasing the holy grail of "inbox zero". We believe in multi-tasking, but end up doing less as we allow ourselves to be sucked into irrelevancy. We’re prone to digital distractions, but studies show that it takes us up to 23 minutes to focus again on the original task. And when we consume information, we either snack, or we binge – in either case consuming the data equivalent of empty calories.
In other words: we use technology simply to speed up old ways of working. Wouldn’t it be much better if we would fundamentally reimagine how we use information? We need to learn how data can help us connect the dots, provide context and highlight correlations. In this big data world we have to frame and ask the right questions, and turn them into algorithms that help us sift through the digital deluge.
This vision will come to nought if we don’t build the tools to capture and analyse this deluge of unstructured information. Decisions won’t be based on insights from small samples anymore; instead we will interrogate huge data sets with the help of algorithms and machine learning. Of course, this conjures up visions of Skynet and its Terminators ruling over us humans. But remember: all that machines can do is answer questions they’ve been given. In other words: setting the framework, asking the questions, interrogating the data, these are the jobs that only humans can do.
Yes, there will a redistribution of workload – from humans to machines. At the same time we will see the new jobs, and the rise of new technology rockstars – data scientists that are both analysts and story tellers to help make sense of our world.
Most importantly, we have to learn when to be immersed and connected, and when to look up and disengage. Just switching off won’t be the answer. The smart workers of tomorrow will know when technology can help – and when it can’t.
This post was originally published on Huffington Post UK