Information Overload, Virtual Workplaces, and the Future of Work: interview with Nirit Cohen

Information Overload, Virtual Workplaces, and the Future of Work: interview with Nirit Cohen

Interview with Nirit Cohen, a thought leader, blogger, and speaker on the Future of Work.

NZ: Please tell us a little about yourself and the nature of your job at Intel.

NC: I have over 25 years of experience in Human Resources, Mergers & Acquisitions, HR Information Systems and Finance, having worked in roles which span Israel, EMEA, US and Global responsibilities, including a decade as the HR manager for Intel Israel.

In the past decade, in addition to my roles as a senior HR Director at Intel Corporation, I passionately research, write, speak and consult on strategies for the Future of Work and careers. As a recognized thought leader and popular speaker on the various trends and implications in the workplace, I write a weekly column in the “Globes” financial paper, as well as an active blog with a large following.

NZ: How did information overload impact your productivity and your life?

NC: As the various channels multiplied, we started receiving more and more email and then other sources of information. It became very hard to understand what to read and what to ignore. On the other hand, when looking for information, it wasn’t always clear what was trustworthy and authoritative, and what was simply opinion. I had to learn where to go looking when I needed something. The hardest part was realizing that you couldn’t possibly read everything you saw.

We started losing time to cleaning up the inbox, and losing important information became a real risk. When you clean up a loaded inbox you can’t really take the time to actually do the important work you find in the messages, so you leave it there and come back later, when you risk simply losing it.

NZ: How does information overload impact the effectiveness of members in a corporate group?

NC: I find that using email, especially in a global group, makes team communications very inefficient. For example, you get multiple replies to a message but you can’t only read the last one, because people reply out of sequence; you have to read every message to make sense of the discussion, which is difficult and inefficient.

Of course, messages are much more than email today: we get email, chat apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, and social media messaging – LinkedIn and Facebook. There is no clarity on how you communicate where, which tool you should use.

In fact, when I actually talk to somebody I never remember which channel they’d used to approach me if I need to find the original conversation. The tools used at work depend on the work environment – but many still use email, because it is the common denominator. Even if there are better tools today, not all companies are finding it easy to incorporate them into their complex IT environments, so you can’t always use the tools you would personally prefer.

NZ: Why do you think people send so much email that is unnecessary?

NC: Some messages are part of useful workplace communications. Others result from the ease of communication: people feel that because it is so easy to send, it’s OK. They don’t think they’re hurting their own digital brand by doing so. They don’t feel some of what they’re creating is a form of spam. I think over the years this may change: we will learn to filter out incoming messages that are not personalized. Then senders will need to learn how to phrase a message to get it to be read, to make it heard above the noise.

NZ: You are an expert on the Workplace of the Future: how do you think the changes coming to the work environment will impact the Information Overload problem?

NC: I think over the years our tools in the digital space are going to become more natural and will make our virtual office interactions feel more like the different interactions we had in the physical office. In the physical workplace people can differentiate whether I’m in my office with a closed door, which signals I am not to be disturbed, or in the cafeteria where I am approachable. As we move more to the virtual space and have the tools that allow us to converse and be effective in it, we will get to where we have the same separation of access and privacy and of different levels of interruptability, just like in a physical space. We have to learn to virtually “close the door” when needed.

There will be technical solutions for that, and there will also be behavioral learning. The apps and tools we use today are fighting for our eyeballs, so they do their best to attract our attention through notification dots and alerts. We need to go in the opposite direction, to have tools that shield us from distractions while signaling to others when we are busy or available. I organized a Workplace of the Future conference in Israel in 2012 where we looked at the 2020 horizon; we envisioned there a tool that would do that. Whether done visually or conceptually, we need this capability.

NZ: Do you see a difference in how Millennial employees deal with workplace information overload?

NC: First, they live better in this world than earlier cohorts. They are more attuned to the information flow and are better able to disconnect. I’ve seen some of them take Facebook off their phones, so they don’t feel compelled to glance at it all the time.

Although millennials are used to all the information being out there, I don’t think they have the sense of prior generations about it not all being equal in value. We grew up with libraries, where an encyclopedia had more authority than popular literature, but online all seems to have the same value, so millennials have some difficulty assigning the right level of value to content. Also, they may not feel the overload the way their predecessors do, in the same way that a fish doesn’t feel the water around it; because we saw it creep up on us, while they were born into it.

NZ: What was your personal strategy for coping with the overload? What methods or tools did you apply?

NC: First, I learned that cleaning up a mailbox is something you have to schedule for a set time in the day.

Second, I learned to unsubscribe from incoming stuff you don’t need – all of it.

Then I learned that the best strategy is to touch anything – any message – only once.

A key change for me was that I got comfortable with deleting stuff without reading it. If something I like reading – say, a newsletter – comes in faster than I can read it, I just delete that issue. I use email and not RSS because I want to stay connected to what’s new and don’t trust myself to take the time to go into RSS readers, blogs, websites. So I subscribe to what I know is valuable for me, but am comfortable deleting the whole bunch of informative messages that arrived on a given day if I don’t have time to deal with it that day. Then on a different day, when I have time and attention, I will read the batch that arrived since. Once deleting became OK, I could consume information in a sustainable way.

NZ: What solutions or changes are missing that would solve the problem as you experience it? What tools would you love to see developed?

NC: What I’d love to have is a tool that works across my devices (phone, tablet, laptop), that mimics my physical office space location in the virtual space. I want people to know if I’m sitting behind closed doors or drinking coffee in open space. I’d like to be able to decide what I’m doing, whether or not I want to be interrupted, and to tell the world about it. This tool would allow me to control my environment – virtually close that office door, block incoming calls and alerts when I’m busy – and to inform others that I am unresponsive now and when I am going to be available to them.

NZ: What role do you think AI methods will play in addressing the overload problem?

NC: I’m having an interesting reaction to that. Consider my feeds – such as Google or Facebook – these already use AI to decide what to show me and what not. I’m sure AI can be very helpful in learning what I need; when Google Feed shows me things on the Future of Work that I need, that is useful. AI is also quite useful in blocking spam.

And yet, this annoys me on some level, because I want my own control. The companies developing the algorithms base them on their interests; without user control this is just a more sophisticated spamming methodology. I’m thinking we need a combination of AI and something else that is more user-defined, user-controlled. I want to inform the AI engine, and understand how it decided what to show me. The Machine Learning developers should give me visibility into what they are learning about me – they may be wrong, after all! For example, they may learn from my deleting newsletters when I’m busy, that I don’t want to see these at all. Or they may be facilitating behaviors I would like to change, keeping my eyeballs on apps when I would like to do something else.

I’m not sure, unfortunately, that without some sort of mandated governance the right things will happen in this respect.

NZ: Can you share with our readers one related “best practice” you use that they can adopt to become happier and more productive?

NC: I recommend practicing being OK with deleting subscribed content, even good content, without reading it, and knowing that you can read the next issue when you have the time. I found this a useful skill that has improved my ability to cope with information overload.


Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.