One major modern-day problem facing organizations is distracting technology in the workplace. With technology blurring the line between work and non-work activities, employees can surf the internet, shop online, message with friends, and complete personal banking throughout the workday. Not only does access to technology (such as email, video conferencing, texting, etc.) diminish productivity in the workplace, but distracted employees can also lead to security-threatening or life-threatening consequences. Researchers (Stanko & Beckman, 2015) examine how an organization, specifically the Navy, manages distracted employees and refocuses employee attention back to work.
Organizational control involves the rules, norms, and technical systems that organizations employ to influence how their employees work. One component of organizational control is boundary control. In past research, boundary control was simply defined as controlling when people came to work. However, the authors use the term to refer to how employers can “capture and shape employee attention” during the workday.
WHAT ARE SITUATIONAL CONTROLS?
One way to shape how, when, and where individuals participate in non-work activities is through something called situational controls. There are three types of situational controls:
1. Monitoring means physically or electronically tracking what employees are paying attention to. This includes watching for abuse (e.g., monitoring for extensive use of a social media website) and scanning the environment (e.g., identifying new technologies or external threats and tracking patterns of usage through spikes in website traffic).
2. Contextualization means reducing non-work distractions by reaching out to individuals during specific situations. This includes three components: encouraging positive communication with friends and family outside of the workplace, providing information to clarify what is appropriate behavior at work, and delivering reminders or warnings about proper technology use as well as consequences of inappropriate use.
3. Deflection means restricting employee attention. This involves three types: withholding access (e.g., email and internet blackouts), limiting access (e.g., restricting websites or limiting the amount of time on computers), and redirecting behavior to be compliant (e.g., removing comments on Facebook).
Monitoring, contextualizing, and deflecting all work together to mold the attention of employees, but using a poor balance of situational controls might result in negative employee responses.
The underuse of situational controls can lead to employees rejecting the controls through workarounds (ways around organizational control efforts). These workarounds include dismissal (actively ignoring control efforts), or desensitization (messages becoming invisible due to overexposure and unchanging content). On the other hand, the overuse of situational controls (e.g., extensive tracking and restricting of attention) can lead to employees who feel forced to comply with strict organizational rules. As a result, they will feel disconnected, frustrated, and powerless.
THE ARTFUL BALANCE OF SITUATIONAL CONTROLS
In order to control employee attention and evoke cooperation, an artful use of situational controls includes:
- Expanded use of tracking attention through monitoring
- Evolving efforts to cultivate attention through contextualization
- Intermittent restriction of attention through deflection
As a result of artful organizational efforts to control attention in this study, employees kept the organization in mind, refocused their attention back to work, and adjusted their behavior to follow the organization’s rules.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE WORKPLACE
We have entered an age where, rather than simply controlling where, for how long, and when employees work, organizations must now control and shape the attention of employees throughout the workday. To be fully effective at shaping the attention of employees without destroying morale, organizations have a challenging job. They must supplement their global controls (abstract, high level practices such as business conduct guidelines) with situational controls. This will help them manage the attention of their employees. Situational controls used in an artful and balanced manner will allow organizations to manage their technology-distracted employees based on the situation and can result in fewer problems with productivity and network security.
Stanko, T. L., & Beckman, C. M. (2015). Watching You Watching Me: Boundary Control and Capturing Attention in the Context of Ubiquitous Technology Use. Academy of Management Journal, 58(3), 712-738.