Attention vs Awareness: The Problem with Remote Work

Like many of you, I have been working from home the last month along with the rest of the team at Boardable. As a software company, we are fortunate to be able to work remotely without losing a beat. Also, before the COVID-19 pandemic we worked from home on Tuesdays, so the DNA was already in the team. We shifted gears overnight and it’s been a good experience overall.

Remote operations have some advantages, but where does the focus trade off with awareness? Boardable CEO Jeb Banner has thoughts on how to maximize both in the future.

With Focus Comes Challenges

In many ways, this change (and the pandemic itself) has brought focus and urgency to Boardable. We have picked up the pace and made some big moves. We’ve also gotten greater clarity on what problems we are solving for our customers. I believe we will come out of this experience a stronger team with a more compelling offering. All good things.

But as we enter Month Two, I’m beginning to see the downside to being fully remote. The best way I can describe this is as the difference between attention and awareness. I think of attention as being where you direct your conscious mind, which has very limited capacity. Conversely, awareness consumes and processes terabytes of data through your unconscious mind every second. This is something of a superpower for humans. It makes connections behind the scenes, it informs our “gut feeling.” 

Focus Vs. Awareness

When people work together in a shared space, as we mostly do, they often struggle to remain focused. Their attention muscle gets fatigued. The social chatter and activity can drag them away from the work at hand. To stay on track they often find themselves working at night to leverage focused time to get things done. This can lead to burnout. 

But on the flip side, the awareness that we all get from being immersed in the activity of the business helps fill gaps in experience or knowledge and build a shared understanding. It is also cultural glue. We may be focused, or trying to focus, on the task at hand but we are also hearing two people discuss an issue or idea that has relevance to our area of the business. With remote work, that pretty much goes away. We are left to leverage attention as our primary mental muscle.

How Do We Stay Connected?

For a while you can coast on the built-up shared awareness you have as a team. And there are ways to simulate some aspect of in-person experiences with virtual hang outs. But it isn’t the same. Humans are wired to use all our senses to process experiences. Virtual experiences only use two senses: sight and sound. We are also missing the real, if hard to measure, energy that flows between a group of people working in a shared space.  

So what’s the solution here? My thinking is that as we tiptoe back into offices and workspaces, we will need to embrace the best of both worldsattention and awareness.

Here’s what I think will happen: Many companies will increase work from home days/times to give their teams the time they need to do heads down, focused work that requires their full attention. Additionally, they will have at least one or two days a week where everyone is together, maybe a little less productive, but reaping the benefits of building a shared understanding through increased awareness. I believe that this current experience will change the way we think of attention and awareness for the better.

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