Managing Attention for Employee Wellness & Productivity
Published Oct 20 2020 07:59 AM 3,512 Views
Authored by Tony Crabbe – leading business psychologist


In 1733 John Kay invented the flying shuttle. A simple mechanical device that allowed the worker to weave much wider fabrics, doubling the speed of production. In the few years that followed, parallel innovations in spinning and steam power increased productivity by a factor of 500. As the machines got better, so productivity increased; and so changed the world. Organizations flourished, income levels rose, longevity increased. Since then, this relationship between improving technology and productivity growth have remained constant for the last 2 centuries…until recently.


Over the last 15 years there has been a sharp decline in productivity growth in the US and across developed nations¹. This ever-increasing divergence between what we should be able to produce with our digital technology, and our actual business productivity, has been called the Productivity Gap.


Where is all the productivity? The answer is not to be found in our work ethic. Over the last 15 years, the amount of content an individual office worker is generating has increased by a factor of 200; over the same time periods we are also doing 50% more collaboration². We are working harder and longer than ever before; leveraging the flexibility afforded by our devices to stay connected 24/7.


So why are improvements in technology not resulting in the kind of productivity gains we might expect? The reason for this stems from a shift in the way value is created. As a popular HBR article explains, there are two types of performance: tactical (getting things done) and adaptive (insight, innovation and adaptation)³. Both types have always been important, but the balance of what matters most has shifted dramatically over the last decade whether you’re at a desk or on the frontline. What drives value and productivity today, in the midst of our digital transformation and our hybrid reality, is much more about adaptive performance. This shift from activity to insight also requires a shift in how we think about productivity. Productivity will no longer result from working longer and harder; through getting more stuff done, faster. Insight, innovation and adaptation are not enabled through more activity, but through more attention. The problem is, while our culture of busyness helps us to get a lot of things done; it kills attention.


Dan Nixon, a Senior Economist of the Bank of England, explains that our Productivity Gap is resulting from a ‘crisis of attention’ in organizations. In a study by Microsoft, 58% of knowledge workers say they think less than 30 minutes a day; 30% say they do no thinking at all! Hardly the conditions for great insights! When it comes to creativity, McKinsey find that 94% of executives are dissatisfied with their organization’s innovation performance. When it comes to collaboration, while we spend 85% of our time collaborating, half of that time is spent responding to internal communication that adds no value to their business or attending meetings that are a ‘soul sucking waste of time’. It is little wonder then that the heaviest collaborators are also the least engaged.


In shackling our technology to an industrial work ethic, we have created more activity but less insight and innovation. Digital productivity can only happen when we combine the power of digital technology with the very best of human attention; when we enable real focus, imagination and great conversations. This is why Satya Nadella explains “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”


So what does it mean to manage attention?

Many of us are deeply familiar with time management, but what does it mean to manage human attention? Attention has three dimensions:


Direction: Think of attention like a flashlight, it has a direction. We point our attention to different topics and tasks at different moments. When we don´t manage the direction of our attention, we become overly reactive; we don´t feel a sense of progress against the projects that really matter to us, and our organizations. It is this sense of progress, that is one of the biggest predictors of impact, but also of motivation¹⁰. Managing direction involves simple habits that persistently redirect our attention onto the projects and activities that matter most. Think also of the flashlight of attention as having a narrow and a wide beam, we can choose to direct either form of attention onto a task at hand. For example, neuroscience shows us that when people direct their attention onto a task or meeting with the intention to be creative (a wide beam), different parts of their brain are activated in advance, and they produce more creative outputs.


  • At many points each day we face WWIDN Moments (‘What will I do next?') For example, first thing in the morning, or after leaving a meeting? Where do you look first in your WWIDN Moments?
  • How often do you pause, at the end of the day, to reflect on how much progress you´ve made against what matters most?


Depth: Attention also has an intensity. The strength of our concentration or immersion. The degree to which we are fully present in a conversation. When we don´t manage the depth of our attention, we are not able to bring our full focus into our work and our meetings. Managing depth is about the ability to get into a state of deep immersion, or flow¹¹, which not only improves thinking performance, it reduces fatigue. More than this, managing depth is about managing the number of open files in the brain, which drain us of processing power. It is about establishing human connections in virtual meetings. When we connect with each other first, as a team, we then connect more fully with the conversation. It involves recognizing when to focus on different activities, recognizing that our attentional capabilities are not constant. Finally, in the hybrid workplace, it´s about recognizing that effectiveness is heavily context dependent; and so intentionally moving to different environments for different types of tasks is key.


  • How often do you glance at your phone between meetings, even though you know you do not have time to fully respond? When you do this, you open files that pollute your brain
  • How often do you keep your video on to keep you disciplined and present? One study showed attention span nearly doubled when the video was on.


Duration: There is also a time-based component of attention. The length of time it lingers on any given topic or task. The frequency with which we switch our attention. When we don´t manage the duration of our attention, we become distracted. The average office worker switches attention every 3 minutes, incurring a task cost which exhausts us, and reducing productivity by 40%. Managing duration is about clustering activities together. It´s about switching off the notifications at moments when focus is needed, rather than grazing on organizational uber-communication all day.


It´s also about establishing norms around single-tasking during meetings, whether virtual or in-person. After all, when people are only partially present in meetings, any chance of insight, innovation or true collaboration disappears; we also don´t extract the full value of the diversity in the meeting.


  • Are you a Grazer or a Blaster? Grazers keep all notifications on all the time, and graze on messages all day. Blasters go into email, at set moments, blast through their inbox and then close it down, to concentrate of work that needs focus.
  • How often do you ‘phub’ people? How often do you glance at your phone during conversations? How often do you turn up to a meeting and instantly open Outlook! Phubbing kills joint attention, it turns insightful conversations into limp exchanges.


When we don´t manage our attention, our typical psychological state is characterized by reactive, unfocused distraction: but it doesn´t have to be that way. Digital technology is an incredible enabler, so how can we shift our working habits away from busy activity and towards attention, leveraging the digital workplace as a catalyst to drive change? After all, the fundamental equation that will drive success is: Productivity = technology X attention. It is only when great technology AND the very best of human attention come together that we can ignite the true potential of the digital transformation on our performance and to change our world. Follow these best practices and share your own here in our forums.


  2. Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant (2016) Collaborative overload.  Harvard Business Review Jan - Feb 
  5. Scott D. Anthony, Paul Cobban, Rahul Nair, and Natalie Painchaud (2019) Breaking Down the Barriers to Innovation. Harvard Business Review, Nov - Dec
  6. Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant (2016) Collaborative overload.  Harvard Business Review Jan - Feb 
  7. Nick Atkin (2012) 40% of staff time is wasted on reading internal emails. The Guardian, Dec 17th
  8. Oliver Burkeman (2014) Meetings: even more of a soul-sucking waste of time than you thought.  The Guardian, 26th Nov
  9. Rob Cross et al
  10. Teresa Amabile.  The Progress Principle.  Harvard Business Review Press
  11. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (2008) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


Tune in next week when we shift our focus to harnessing attention for individual productivity and how technology can support. This blog post is a part of our series on the Modern Collaboration Architecture, authored by @ Rishi Nicolai, a Microsoft Digital Strategist with over 25 years of experience in leading organizations through change and improving employee productivity.

Tony Crabbe 

Tony Crabbe is a Business Psychologist who supports Microsoft on global projects as well as a number of other multinationals. As a psychologist he focuses on how people think, feel and behave at work.  Whether working with leaders, teams or organizations, at its core his work is all about harnessing attention to create behavioral change.   

His first book, the international best-seller ’Busy’ was published around the world and translated to thirteen languages.  In 2016 it was listed as being in the top 3 leadership books, globally.  His new book, ‘Busy@Home’ explores how to thrive through the uncertainties and challenges of Covid; and move positively into the hybrid world. 

Tony is a regular media commentator around the world, as well as appearances on RTL, the BBC and the Oprah Winfrey Network. 


1 Comment
Version history
Last update:
‎Oct 20 2020 07:59 AM