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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Employment Today Magazine

Taking it slow

Are the strategies we use to manage information overload effective and sustainable? Or could the answer to our information overload worries be found in what started as the Slow Food movement? Massey University’s Healthy Work Group takes some lessons from The Tortoise and the Hare.

Have you ever been in the situation of having trouble coping with the increasing pace of your workplace? Do you ever have a sense of having to deal with too much information? Who doesn’t in this information rich, “always available”, world we live in? Maybe it is time to be the tortoise rather than the hare?

“Slow” had its beginnings in the 1980s with Slow Food. The concept emerged as an alternative to the fast-paced, commodity focused, and impersonal nature of some aspects of modern culture. Specifically, Slow started when people took exception to the positioning of a well-known fast food outlet in the Piazza diSpagna in Rome. As implied by the name, the resulting Slow Food movement stood for everything that the fast food industry, at least at the time, appeared not to. Concepts of fresh, locally produced, seasonal, traditional recipes, sustainability of farming systems, and leisurely dining with family and friends lay at the heart of Slow Food.

Since then a number of writers, including Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slowness (who coined the term “Slow Movement”), have extended the concept by suggesting that people and communities can benefit from applying Slow principles across a range of settings, including cities, living, travel, finances, childcare, careers, and design. Taking this one step further, researchers at Massey University’s Healthy Work Group are exploring whether selected Slow Movement principles can reduce problems associated with information overload.

Information overload (IO) is a widespread problem for people and the organisations they work for. The typical consequence of IO is that stress goes up and productivity goes down. The cost to business of IO is substantial, with an estimated 30 percent loss of productivity being linked to IO in some workplace settings.

Workplaces can use a range of approaches to lessen and manage IO, but in spite of this the situation appears to be getting worse. Commonly used countermeasures are focused on individuals rather than the organisation and include training people in techniques for handling information, running information literacy programmes, implementing well-being strategies, and applying a range of information communication technology (ICT) applications. In fact, somewhat paradoxically, ICT countermeasures are one of the most common IO management strategies, even though they are known to be a big part of the cause. This causal link is so well recognised that the term “technostress” is used to denote the stress caused when people have trouble coping with ICTs.

The ongoing nature of IO as a problem raises questions about how best it should be managed, especially when the outlook is for a lot more computer-based work content. Even “safe haven” tradesperson roles once considered exempt from computer screen content are now being drawn in by smartphone applications which enable real time “on the job” data entry.

So what does IO look like for people? IO happens when the quantity of information people are required to deal with becomes too much for them to process without undue stress. As part of the effects of IO, the inverted U-curve shown in Figure 1 (on page 22) shows how decision making accuracy can drop off as the volume of information rises above certain thresholds in an IO situation, meaning that businesses suffer from poorer decision making and general productivity. IO can lead to absenteeism, dysfunctional working relationships, and feelings of generalised overload, not coping, poor sleep quality, decreased job satisfaction, and general negative health consequences.

Increases in IO appear to be linked to the explosion of ICTs (most recently smartphones) across both our work and personal lives. The challenges of 24/7 connectivity, multiple social media channels, and digital purchasing, all form part of the technostress and IO risk environment. Having office, mobile and home phones merge into a single portable smartphone device no longer leaves any automatic downtime away from work, and thereby dismantles yet another previously defined work boundary. Massey’s researchers view this situation as an opportunity to explore new and innovative approaches, and have turned their attention to Slow as an idea worth looking into.

The Slow Movement’s fundamental tenet is that adopting a slower pace can add value and enhance experience, and therefore potentially increase performance and well-being. In Slow Food terms, this means that spending more time preparing and sharing a meal with family and friends increases enjoyment of the food, and has wider social and other benefits. Contrast this image of food preparation and consumption with your own experience of fast food outlets, and see what view you come to about the quality of the experience.

In a business and employment context, the idea that a slower pace may lead to better outcomes seems intuitively a little unlikely or even somewhat naive. Taking time over a meal is one thing, but how could Slow in any way reconcile with calls for improving New Zealand’s productivity and performance? However, workplaces are facing growing volumes of information, and this means there is an increasing likelihood of IO problems also growing. In this sense, a tactic based around always going faster also appears somewhat hopeful and naive. The Healthy Work Group’s research programme will explore the IO experience of New Zealand workers, and include taking a look into the idea that Slow might be useful.

Understanding Slow involves moving past the counter-intuitiveness of using it in a workplace context, and appreciating that Slow isn’t necessarily about doing things more slowly per se, but rather about consciously choosing an appropriate pace which puts value on the quality of process over the quantity, and long-term outcomes over shorter term. In this respect Slow has some linkages to mindfulness, a practice which is increasingly showing benefits in the workplace and a range of other health and wellbeing settings.

Many exponents of Slow consider it to be potentially more efficient and to lead to improved overall outcomes. In their view, this comes about through decisions being made and actions being conducted in a more thoughtful and considerate manner, rather than purely speed driven. As an example, a research piece relating to schooling showed that greater overall learning was achieved when the focus on mastering content was strengthened, and the pace of moving through the curriculum material was slowed.

A further example, from the health sector, conveyed Slow’s value by reporting that patients had better comprehension of critical healthcare information when less rather than more information was provided to them. In a more light-hearted sense, another author challenged people to reduce their intake of radio news, noting a study which showed Americans were less able to name their leaders, and about as aware of major news events as they were 20 years ago, this in spite of the proliferation of fast-paced news channels over the ensuing two decades.

Thus, although contemporary management practice appears often to be centred around a mantra that “fast always equals better”, there may be a balance point where the negative side of IO, and the sheer limitations of human capabilities, result in the sustainability of going faster and faster being increasingly questioned. However, while a number of writers are enthusiastic about the benefits of Slow, in reality there is to date limited substantiated evidence for Slow’s value proposition. Slow Food and to a lesser extent Slow Cities are represented most commonly in the written work, but much of the attention is in relation to the movement’s history and the political/ethical drivers, more so than considerations of business value.

Although the Slow Movement is most closely associated with ideas around the pace and focus of decision making and tasks, other Slow principles warrant investigation in relation to reducing IO, including a focus on ethical and environmental consequences of action, durability/sustainability, thinking “locally”, scale, and authenticity.

The enthusiasm which some writers show for Slow, together with its limited research base in business fields, has prompted the research interest in the area. Although initially this seems like an unlikely solution, the pressing need to better manage the very real impacts of IO, both now and into the future, suggests a degree of lateral thinking might be a good thing. The heavy burden of IO on individuals, their families, and their workplaces is significant. Exploring the idea of adopting Slow principles may be a way forward.

So, at the point when you notice yourself aimlessly wiping crumbs off the office desk; when it occurs to you that not much is going well, that you’re not listening well, not writing well, and perhaps not sleeping well; maybe it is time to adopt some Slow principles and reap the benefits of the considered, well-paced, tortoise?

GARY OLDCORN, DARRYL FORSYTH, DAVID TAPPIN and BEVAN CATLEY are members of the Healthy Work group at Massey University. www.facebook.com/healthyworkgroup

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