Herbert A Simon, the economist who first outlined the idea of the “attention economy”, warned us years ago that too much information muddled our brains. Instead of listening, we bought iPhones.
I can draw a neat line between the phenomenal financial results of US tech companies during the pandemic and my own deteriorating attention span. Lockdown has accelerated every bad habit. Reflexively scanning WhatsApp, Slack, Twitter, Instagram, emails and texts is now a near-constant activity.
That includes work messages. The slight anxiety of not knowing what’s in your inbox can feel more stressful than quickly checking it the second you wake up. When I asked around to make sure it wasn’t just me, colleagues and friends with email-centric jobs said the same thing. The tiny minority who declared that they did not look at their emails out of hours turned out to be in contact with their offices by WhatsApp instead.
That may have made sense at the panicky height of the pandemic when many of us were adjusting to remote work. Now that offices are reopening, perhaps there is a way to moderate constant, unnecessary contact.
Ireland’s solution is a new “right to disconnect” that means employees shouldn’t routinely have to work outside normal hours, including responding to emails. The code, published by the country’s Workplace Relations Commission, also includes the “duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect” — for example, by not sending emails outside work hours.
Other countries are discussing similar ideas. The UK union Prospect, which represents engineers and tech workers, wants companies to be legally required to negotiate rules on when they can contact staff for work purposes.
Yet even if governments set policies that prevent employers from demanding constant email replies, it will be difficult to force employees to stop checking their messages. Social media is designed to be addictive. Email is too. The unpredictability of not knowing whether there is something new to see keeps us coming back again and again. When there is something, it offers a teeny dopamine hit, no matter how inconsequential the message.
There was a moment a few years ago when the war against constant emails seemed to hang in the balance. In 2014, car company Daimler generated reams of positive press by creating a system that automatically deleted emails while employees were on holiday.
The system, Mail on Holiday, is still in place. Emails sent while workers are away are deleted and the sender receives a reply offering an alternative contact for urgent requests. This means that employees cannot check their emails while out of the office and do not return to thousands of unread messages.
The bad news is that Mail on Holiday is not a system that slots into place as soon as someone switches off their computer and waves goodbye. Employees have to opt in. The company says that the number of participating employees is not measured, but I bet a fair few Daimler employees do not turn it on at all.
Most of the corporate world has kept suspiciously quiet on the subject. There appears to be an unspoken agreement that companies will not officially request that employees answer emails at all hours — but they also know workers are likely to be checking. What this means, of course, is that working hours can extend in some form into every waking moment.
Attention is a scarce and precious resource. Tech companies know this; that’s why they employ all sorts of tricks to keep you focused on their products. Allowing attention to be leached away by non-urgent work emails, even if there is no requirement to reply, feels instinctively unhealthy. If augmented reality wearables start beaming messages straight into our eyes, then the fight will be truly lost.
There is one answer — though it is less dramatic than automatically deleting emails or creating new laws for digital disconnection. The return to office life is a good moment to introduce more structure to our days. Instead of firing off messages late into the night, scheduling emails to arrive within working hours is a simple, sane solution. Not only is it less stressful for the recipient, but it also means messages are less likely to be read and forgotten. Reducing the number of emails that arrive out of hours is more polite, too. In the battle for attention, we should try fighting on the same side.
Elaine Moore is the FT’s deputy Lex editor
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