Avoiding information overload?

Avoiding information overload?

(#12 of our Together-Ensemble series)

In this session, we focused on the challenges brought by the attention economy.

Why do most people feel overwhelmed, and why for some it may have become hard to focus more than 10 minutes on a task? Everywhere, we hear how exhausted people are.

Some experts lose their self-confidence because they feel they cannot catch up with all the knowledge, data and information shared. There is also for many people a certain inability to understand what should or should not be shared, as a consequence we miss the most important, while only finding too much of what is unnecessary.

This session of Together-Ensemble on 29 October 2020 allowed colleagues to learn how to avoid suffering from information overload or worse contributing to creating a sense of overload. We shared some healthy habits to keep up with the pace of information and change and ideas on how to improve the situation.

OPENING CONVERSATION

Martine Reicherts served as European Commissioner in the Barroso Commission, with a portfolio of Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship. She was also Director-General for Education, Youth, Sport, and Culture until her retirement in 2018. She had previously held the post of Director-General of the Office for Official Publications of the European Union and many other positions including as spokesperson of the Commission, head of unit personnel & administration, or adviser in the Santer Cabinet.

Tanya Verrier is Director for Transparency, Efficiency, and Resources in the Secretariat-General in the European Commission. Before joining the Secretariat-General in 2016, she worked in the Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition in various roles including leading large-scale investigations in the area of financial services and banking. She also led a strategy unit and a communication unit. Before joining the Commission in 2008, Tanya acted as an expert and advisor to the Commission in the area of financial services. She has 15 years’ work experience in the private sector, including financial services as well as transport and travel. Tanya is an economist by training. She holds an MBA and a PhD in finance.

Bess Stonehouse is an international facilitator and organisational consultant, described as unmissable in the domain of event management. With more than 30 years of experience, which she started in the Fashion Industry, she delivers mostly on topics related to efficiency and effectiveness, skill blending, and team optimisation. Her clients include Total, Center for Creative Leadership, European Training Foundation…

You can watch the webinar part here. Please note that this is internal “raw” material, not originally intended for external publication, but knowing the difficult context and associated challenges, we have decided to make it available to all. It is offered by the European Commission with a view to encouraging everyone to take similar initiatives to encourage a benevolent direction. (video will be added soon).

MAIN RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE WORKSHOP

160 colleagues had registered for this session; of whom 90 attended the webinar live and 50 took part in the workshop on 29 October 2020.

  • Challenges related to information overload: Long unprioritized to-do lists. Too many emails to read. Too many collaboration platforms and social media. Difficulties to focus. Lack of concentration. No idea of what the relevance might be if it’s not indicated (lengthy documents). Lack of concentration. Feeling overwhelmed. What of all the information is important? We need means for filtering. Too many emails pushed from ‚above‘. Missing important things for my job. Crazy stressful deadlines. Difficulty focusing on the big picture. Time-consuming to filter. The work has become flatter. Dealing with lots of information in writing (especially in the current situation). The frustration of being not able to read everything. The social expectation of others to react to the “content” they share with you. All of this can be very disturbing and confusing, tiring.
  • Damages: Disempowerment. Loss of efficiency and effectiveness in the organisation. Fragmentation, increasing difficulty to prioritize and focus, especially with the lockdown. Stress, even panic, and dilution of the essential. Fear of missing something. Perception of being always late on the things to know and do. Feeling intimidated, stressed. Impact on health and wellbeing, stress confusion frustration of which info is correct or not. Not enough time when everything seems important. Question the need for reports. Does anyone actually read them? Overwhelmed by repetitive, useless reporting requests. Lack of separation of private life. Loss of interest. Demotivation. Just feel tired and do not want to watch or read anything anymore. Increased difficulty to concentrate. Being superficial. Tick the box mentality. Daring to be innovative is not so easy. Impact on the ability to recover important information when needed in an emergency? Those who do good work remain often invisible and lack recognition.
  • Solutions: Collective mindset & behaviour change are needed. Realise time is precious and we need to use it better. The importance of ‘the journalist’ who filters. Justify relevance. Manage other’s expectations of your availability. Teach people that you are not always available. The email is at your service and not the other way around. Embrace e-mail as asynchronous communication. If you want an immediate answer, call or use a direct message. E-mail (or Teams) instead of calls so that you give people a choice of which information they focus on. Let each e-mail reply linger before sending to avoid any follow-up mails. Use Wiki/ Teams to collect knowledge and use it when needed. Apply the Pull method for retrieving information rather than Push – pouring it to all. Stop reinventing things continuously, some continuity and rationale for changes are needed. Avoid reinventing things/processes continuously without a clear rationale. Keep in mind what is relevant for the EU citizens. Focus on where you think you can actually make a difference, do not do things just because of routine. Draft short mails/texts that cover 80 % instead of focussing on completeness/perfection. Think about what is useful for the reader: what can s/he learn from it, used in the own job.. Set firm boundaries. Who should decide which information is relevant to me? Should I decide what is relevant for my work, and which channels to follow? There is no one size fits all, each person has different limits/bandwidth, and should feel empowered to decide.
  • New habits (and new myths in the workplace): Sorry but relying only on self-discipline will not do the trick. At some point you need rules. and systemic changes! Change the culture. If someone is sending many emails, this person is obviously not working. Share knowledge with colleagues, and use its power for achieving better results together We should be able to dare to say NO to the hierarchy (constructive disobedience). Challenge why you do things and, consider whether they really make sense and do not do things just because they have always been done (both the tasks themselves and the method/process for doing them). Create the space for thinking about our practices and what we need to change. Long and complicated is not a sign of intelligence. Quality vs quantity. Prioritize to increase impact. Avoid multitasking.
  • Tips: Recycle information already produced. Simplify: lose jargon and abbreviations. Make a list. Find selected information sources. Filter, prioritise, and do not overshare. About emails: be concise and to the point, and make sure that the email subject reflects the contents. If you share a “for info” email, explain what info you want your recipients to take away from the email! Plan your information and the information stream: for whom is it really interesting? Call instead of email. Do not ‘reply to all’. Think who should receive it. Audit your information sources to your needs. Get over that FOMO “Fear of missing out”. Help your boss and colleagues identify, before sending the invitation: who really needs to be in the meeting. Apply clear writing: straight, short language instead of Commission jargon. Define what is relevant. Think about the purpose of the information and then choose well whether to push information or to provide it as information people can find if they need it (pull info). Clear guidelines and set of instructions (who does what?). Use news categorisation, hashtags, keywords… And structure documents clearly. And maybe you will save precious time and avoid abstracts. Send mails with a clearly marked priority of the content, e.g. for info, or action to be taken, etc. Do more with less, e.g. Fewer meetings but more efficient and sharing less information. Think first: is it really important information? Press the “delete” button. NO “replying to all”. Take control of your agenda by blocking in me-time. Giving information in meetings should be forbidden! Focus on people and connections. Don’t reply immediately, take your time. Pause and Meditate. Coffee breaks. Read-only what is well written. Email rules so that newsletters and press reviews go directly into a separate folder and not in the inbox, to reduce the number of unread emails in the inbox. Think before sending an e-mail: is it important, who needs to know? Meetings: why am invited? What is expected from me? Quit multitasking, and be selective. Is it relevant for your ‘boss’ or for you? Do you have the possibility to say ‘no’? Also to be forced to be part of all the Teams groups that are being created? Reality check: what is really urgent?
  • Specific call to employers: 1/2 day off daily tasks For us to grow together – pick up the weak signals and move to action. Encourage team discussions on information sharing vs. overload. The top should make it clear that we need to reallocate time. Hence, they should filter more at their level. Putting a good ground zero – conventions on how to collect knowledge, how to structure it, and how to make it user-friendly. Managers have to be sensibilizied (continuously) to the information flow they create. Obligatory breaks to be imposed. Whoever shares information needs to do it well – not only written but orally too (use participatory leadership techniques) Educate high-flyers: special session of together-ensemble / reverse mentoring – give them the opportunity to think about their behaviours, feedback culture, recognition, lack of involvement of real experts etc. Empathy? Ensure managers attend training courses about stress management for instance. Delegate where possible, prioritize. Outsource information.. Have a service that analyses and prioritizes requests from customers and directs them to the correct contact person. Ensure clear and correct communication.
  • Education & Training: Educate our colleagues on how to write emails. A kind of netiquette for emails: thinking about who really should receive them and making clear the purpose (information, action, entertainment, etc.). KANBAN for information and data.. Training, making principles and guidelines explicit.
  • Tools: Decide on ONE collaborative platform instead of the current multitude/fragmentation. Use the right tool for the right thing, chat for discussion, not email. Better use of Functional Mail Boxes rather than the personal ones for tasks not involving all or are just for info. And agree on a common platform to share knowledge on.

Related links:

Kanban Software & Project Management Tool • Asana

Next topic is corona fatigue, or how to cope with a state of permacrisis! I hope you are still following your troubadour because I have loads of surprises for you 🙂

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