Ancient Brains in the Digital Workplace:

A Modern Guide to Maximizing Your Team’s Productivity


Digital transformation promises to raise employee productivity and innovation to new heights. But despite increasing investments in powerful technology, many companies are seeing their productivity levels flatline.

Disappointing outputs are just one part of the problem – and a costly one. Inefficiency and capped performance can translate to lost revenue and opportunities, and it can directly impair your ability to succeed in competitive markets. On top of that, user frustration and stress are on the rise, putting your overall employee experience at risk.

These are the symptoms of digital context switching, an inevitable but costly product of digital transformation. Digital context switching is defined as the process of moving between tasks and projects across different platforms.

Unlike task switching (such as reading an email and then writing one), digital context switching requires your brain to reorient itself to an entirely new context each time you move from one software to another. When it happens over and over throughout the day, all of this time spent redirecting your focus adds up to lost efficiency and can hurt the quality of work.

The Human Brain Isn’t Wired for Multitasking

When we look deeper into why digital context switching is so detrimental, we realized it’s because our brains have never had to focus our attention on so many different interfaces at once before.

Until the start of the digital era, we simply didn’t have access to this plethora of contexts at the same time. Our inability to multitask boils down to the fact that we haven’t evolved as fast as technology progresses. Despite this fact, employees are still expected to produce high-quality work with maximum efficiency.

So how can leaders reconcile our basic human limitations with the need to increase productivity?

The answer lies in refining your approach to managing digital change. By enabling your staff to develop greater technological aptitude, ensuring digital adoption, and adopting better work habits, you can empower your workforce to succeed while maximizing the full value of your digital assets.

In this eBook, we’ll provide the evolutionary perspective on the challenges of digital context switching and describe four strategies for overcoming it.

What Do You Have in Common With Your 200,000-Year-Old Ancestors?

Picture yourself in a time machine looking through windows on every side. Turning the dial, time goes backward.

At first, i’s a bit funny to watch your boss back out of your office while spitting coffee into a mug and your office plant shrink back into its seed. As time retreats, the building you work in is taken apart and the land around you un-develops.

As you fly back through the last few thousand years, you’ll witness the un-cultivation of land, the reverse rise and fall of nation states, and the origin of ancient civilizations.

Zooming past eight, nine, and ten thousand years before today, staples like domesticated cows and chickens, potatoes, corn, and rice fall out of existence. Passing 12,000 years ago, humans revert back to hunting and gathering, leaving agriculture in the future.

Accelerating your time travel, you watch natural selection undo itself and the human species expand. At 17,000 years ago, Homo sapiens are one of two human species, and at 70,000 years ago they are one of three1 .

Finally, you reach your destination. You are in Africa, 200,000 years ago, looking at the nascent population of Homo sapiens. It is hard to relate to the people you are looking at, but you have one significant thing in common: your brain.

You Have an Ancient Brain

The Homo sapiens you are looking at share the same brain you use today to register the words on this page.

Sure, the information inside is different, but our mechanisms for processing information, understanding our surroundings, socializing, communicating, and planning—they are all the same2.

Your brain evolved to its current state about two hundred millennia ago. Fast-forward to today. The daily circumstances and stimulation are vastly different; it is a wonder we can manage it all.

Most technology throughout our history developed slowly over thousands of years. Comparatively, it only took about 30 years to go from publicly available internet to 35.13% of the world’s population using smartphones3.

Today, we want to be masters of technology. We assume the average employee can juggle a dozen or more software apps a day4.

But our ancient brains are ill-equipped to work on and across the many digital tools we use in the modern workplace. The consequences of attempting to push beyond our processing limitations are large-scale inefficiency and eventual burnout.

Same Brain, Different Problems

As a species, we went from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies, to agricultural communities, to full-fledged civilizations. We colonized vast swathes of the planet, invented highly efficient tools, and in just the last 80 years expanded our processing power with the help of computers5.

While neuroplasticity allows us to constantly adapt and learn, the structure of our human brains are largely the same as hundreds of millennia ago. It is an amazingly nimble mechanism we use to navigate and improve our world, but its capacity for focus and maximizing productivity does have its limits.

Most people reading this will not experience being prey—or shall we say dinner—for a predator. But we still have a spike in cortisol levels when a boss ominously calls us into their office.

The fight or flight instinct is just one example of how our ancient brains are wired to interpret and respond to different scenarios.

The quintessential, modern office job provides a much different lifestyle than Homo sapiens have experienced for the majority of our history.

We once took in the information of our natural environment to determine what food was dangerous or where water was located. Today, we are tasked to apply the same mode of thinking to identify emerging market trends, build competitive strategies, and continuously optimize internal processes.

So how do our brains cope with the immensely different stimuli we face in the 21st century?

Enable digital dexterity in your workplace.

Multitasking Means Operating in Overdrive

We are obsessed with technology. The average American adult spends more than 11 hours a day looking at screens.

The rate of nomophobia—the fear of being without a smartphone—is rising, and it only takes about 3-5 minutes without a smartphone for anxiety to set in6.

That makes sense considering we unlock our phones 70+ times per day7.

Technology seems to give us the ability to multitask at unprecedented levels—all the time. The information highway is always available and accessible on our phones, computers, smart TVs, and so many other connected devices.

Employees are caught in the web of all this information, attempting to unlock it in the form of technology platforms, applications, and software. As we struggle to organize and use it all, we eagerly attempt to multitask.

Multitasking is the root of many problems found in the modern workplace

The American Psychological Association (APA) summarized several separate studies from 1994 – 2003, each of which made the same conclusion: our brains are not wired to quickly switch between tasks.

Multitasking imposes a mental tax twice—once in the amount of time it takes to adjust to the new task, and again when our mental capacity is congested with residual thoughts of the previous task8.

Two hundred thousand years ago, we would focus on a single goal of say, hunting, for long periods of our day. Today, we constantly pivot across myriad enterprise apps and platforms.

On top of emails, meetings, Slack messages, project management platforms, the HCM, ERP, CRM, what have you, employees are required to raise performance and maximize productivity. All before lunch!

Man Discovers Burnout
(Not as Cool as Fire)

Constantly moving from one application to another describes a specific kind of multitasking: digital context switching.

The average large enterprise has more than 300 mission-critical apps, which means any individual employee could easily have a dozen or more apps in their daily workflow9.

Now imagine that each application you use at work is a room in a building. Going in and out of each room as rapidly as the workday demands would be dizzying. Every time you enter a new room you must reorient yourself, and that mental work diminishes your productivity.

All of this digital context switching results in a substantial amount of wasted time and energy throughout the day.

Digital fatigue sets in when employees become exhausted from staring at screens and navigating through complicated sets of tasks across multiple platforms and devices.

When digital fatigue is left unremedied, mounting stress can lead to extreme consequences, such as burnout.

Burnout was recently classified by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon. While it remains outside the scope of a medical condition, recognizing it gives WHO and other scientists grounds to begin evidence-based research. For now, we can describe it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed10.”

Employees suffering from burnout become disengaged, perform poorly, and are less likely to stay in their role. Aside from harming their well-being, employee burnout is bad for business because it leads to worse performance and high turnover rates that are expensive to repair.

Evolve Your Brain for the Digital World

In order to break this vicious cycle, we must adopt new practices that enable humans in the modern workplace to excel in an increasingly digital world. Raising digital dexterity, enabling digital adoption, boosting productivity, and throwing out sunk costs provide a pathway for businesses to achieve this goal.

In the rest of this book, we’ll describe how to achieve each one of these tactics.

Part 1

Raising Digital Dexterity

Despite the limitations of our mind, computers promise seemingly unlimited processing capacity.

The only catch is learning how to harness the power of digital tools without getting tangled up in their complexity and reaching the point of burnout.

Unless we can offload our daily processing onto these systems, we can’t take advantage of their benefits. Digital dexterity is key to empowering employees to successfully utilize these powerful machines.

What is Digital Dexterity?

Digital dexterity can be understood as the level of employee ability and motivation for integrating digital tools into their workflow in order to achieve business goals.

Raising the competence of digital dexterity is perhaps the closest we’ll get to rewiring our brains, as it requires adopting new skills as well as attitudes.
But cultivating a digitally dexterous workforce doesn’t happen without making a focused effort.

The first step to raising digital dexterity:
Empowering your employees

Empowering employees to learn to use digital tools optimally requires an effective approach to software training and onboarding. At the same time, encouraging employees to embrace new software means leadership must adequately convey its value and benefits.

Already, the systems we use everyday—from email to CRMs, ERPs, HCMs, and other enterprise software—have more features than we can reasonably spend time training our workforce to use. At least, that’s true with traditional forms of training: user manuals, lectures, training videos, webinars, etc.

In practice, employees can do the basics without learning to use the time-saving, cost-cutting, money-making features these programs and applications offer. Frankly, it takes too much time out of the daily demands to attempt to learn with antiquated training methods, most of which don’t produce long-term knowledge retention anyway.

As a result, employees are less likely to explore the full potential of each platform the company invests in.
The consequence of skipping out on the latest tools and features is that advanced capabilities and the potential to innovate is sidelined rather than being integrated into business operations.

Lack of Digital Dexterity Caps Your Potential

To understand digital dexterity, let’s look at the difference between using technology on the periphery compared to integrating it into a business process. Take, for example, a CRM.

A CRM offers a wide range of capabilities and efficiencies for better managing a company’s lead generation, sales pipeline, and customer relationships. Contemporary CRM systems are equipped with high-level reporting features, data analysis, and computing capabilities. But unless they are digitally dexterous, it’s impossible for employees to take advantage of all of this potential.

When used only for managing the basics, the CRM provides a digital rolodex of prospects, information on the pipeline, notes, and a few other generic features. Using a CRM for only its basic functions is an example of digitizing business operations, but not changing the processes themselves.

Strides in performance and workplace efficiency are not made in this manner.

Without achieving digital dexterity, it will be impossible to fully integrate technology into the business model. We need to raise employees’ digital desire and aptitude in order to discover ways in which these systems can improve and streamline, rather than simply replace old methods of information processing.

Accelerate productivity and performance

Combining Ability With Desire

Ensuring your workforce can make the most of your digital investments might start with hiring people who possess the skills and experience required to work on the digital systems you already have.

Vendors, especially cloud-based software providers, are constantly updating their products. Today’s standard will change tomorrow, requiring new training and practices.

This well-known fact has organizations increasingly investing in training so employees can use these digital systems. According to Training Magazine’s “2018 Training Industry Report,” the average training expenditure for a large company increased from $17 million in 2017 to $19.7 million in 201811.

Increasing the ability of employees to use technology is essential for the modern workplace, but it is not a standalone prescription.

Employees and management should also possess the desire to incorporate and reap the benefits of digital technology. In the ever-changing market, there is no room for standing still. If you aren’t driven to adopt the latest technology, you’ll fall behind as your competitors do.

Increasing digital dexterity across the enterprise is the only way to fully integrate digital tools into business processes and unlock unprecedented potential.

Survival of the Innovators

The Diffusion of Innovation Theory developed by E.M. Rogers in 1962 suggests that there are five established adopter categories represented on a bell curve12.

2.5% Innovators – Willing to take risks
13.5% Early Adopters – Embrace change
34% Early Majority – Evidence-based adoption
34% Late Majority – Skeptical of change, adopt after the majority
16% Laggards – Change for fear or pressure

This theory is used to explain how an idea or product is adopted across a market or social system. Standing on the other side of this, ask where you and your team are on the bell curve. Are you willing to take risks? Embrace change? Or do you wait until competitors have tried, tested, and benefited from technology before you decide to play catch up?

Those with digital dexterity will be in the first 16% of innovators and early adopters. The benefits of embracing change early on are exponential, because efficiency—through the successful adoption of technology—allows even more room for innovation.

If an organization wants to evolve the ancient brains of its workforce, the first step is to combine the desire to integrate technology with the ability to exploit it for better business outcomes.

Combining Ability With Desire

1. Get Stakeholders on the Same Page
Digital dexterity is as much a cultural change as it is a process change. Executives, management, and employees all need to be proponents of existing and emerging technologies being incorporated into daily business operations.

This requires ample communication from digital transformation leaders and managers who determine which new software to implement. Unless you clarify the value of the given tool, it will be difficult to get employees to authentically buy in.

2. View IT From the Employee’s Perspective
Encouraging digital dexterity involves design thinking. It’s not enough to make new technology available, it also needs to be accessible. Create a strategy that will put usability first and reduce friction.

3. Give Employees the Freedom to Innovate
With an unprecedented number of tools available, management cannot expect to always have the best digital solution for each and every business need. Distributing the task of finding innovative solutions empowers employees and can attract top talent.

4. Make Learning Relevant to Daily Work
Training is often inefficient and becoming digitally dexterous requires a lot of training. Rather than attempting to cover all of the necessary content upfront, teach in increments relevant to employees’ daily tasks. Each lesson can be reinforced with practice, increasing the number of skills employees actually learn.

Part 2

Enabling Digital Adoption

Unfortunately, we can’t rewire, debug, or reprogram our ancient brains to change our mechanisms for processing information. The change must come from outside our brains.

We currently have the means for this change at our fingertips. Our ticket to expanded processing capacity and the next leap in our evolution will come from developing an effective digital adoption strategy.

Digital adoption is a state in which employees are equipped to use the full range of features in their technology as they are intended. As opposed to settling for the elementary, basic features a software offers, employees are able to maximize the value of every angle of its functionality.

Digital dexterity and digital adoption are closely related, as becoming dexterous is the precursor to reaching the maximum level of digital adoption.

The Technology Deluge Takes its Toll on Employees

In the modern workplace, knowledge workers need to log into application after application to complete their work. It may start with a document editor to write notes, a spreadsheet to record data, a CRM to view the pipeline, then the HCM to ask for time off, a project manager for team collaboration, a data visualization tool to monitor operations, and the list goes on.

Some of these programs are only needed for a few minutes to view a specific piece of information, while others will be open and running all day. While employees will need to master the processes integral to their daily tasks, they also need to become proficient at non-core platforms, such as locating information on the HCM.

Employees not only need an effective software onboarding system, they also need tools that provide real-time support and reminders of how to complete processes they only use once in a while.

Digital Adoption Demands Better Software Training

The digital fatigue that occurs from attempting to recall how to complete digital processes is inevitable, but it can be minimized if the processes are made more seamless.

The way to achieve this is through evolving your approach to training users.

Training consumes valuable time and resources. Yet, not training employees to use technology to its full potential caps its functionality and minimizes the business impact. Without a strategy to enable digital adoption, your employees will have limited mobility when it comes to driving your digital transformation goals forward.

Traditional forms of training—such as in-person classroom sessions, webinars, and instruction manuals—may have been adequate in the past, but software training demands a different approach: a digital one.

Digital training solutions that enable contextual learning give employees the chance to learn new processes as they actually complete them. Instead of spending time in a training session, then attempting to recall all of the information they learned and put it into practice, contextual learning solutions deploy proactive support and onscreen navigation in real-time based on a user’s goal and guides them through processes, step-by-step.

Irrespective of a user’s experience on a platform, he or she can complete virtually any task with ease.

More Tech Investments Fan the Flame of Burnout

An evolved approach to software onboarding is only the first step. As we’ve seen in the last decade, the development of enterprise technology is accelerating. It’s likely that as consumer demands and business models continue to evolve, so will your technology arsenal.

Today, organizations are increasingly investing in cloud-based technology. Such tools routinely undergo updates, which means users need new information and support along the way in order to maintain maximum usability.

Providing adequate relearning support is integral to keeping pace with an ever-evolving system.

It is essential to enable digital adoption throughout a software’s entire lifecycle in your organization. Without true digital adoption, the effects of digital fatigue—employee frustration, stress, and disengagement—will culminate in burnout.

A Solid Digital Adoption Strategy is a Prime Defense Against Burnout

Left unaddressed, burnout can harm key business performance metrics, as well as cause employee turnover, damage your brand, and provoke a poor employee experience.

Organization need to combat this threat with an effective digital adoption strategy. The key to an effective strategy involves utilizing a digital adoption platform, or DAP13.

A DAP is a breed of technology that enables the simpler, more effective use of other technology. It minimizes the amount of training and effort needed to complete digital tasks and provides users with real-time guidance, engagement, and automation to ensure optimal efficiency.

Working on top of and across the increasing number of applications, a DAP understands the context of an employee’s actions and provides tailored guidance. It smooths the seams between different applications, reduces the disorientation of context switching, and walks users through new processes.

It also answers for inadequate onboarding and training by guiding users through new processes at the time they need to complete a task. This teaches employees how to use technology in the most relevant and contextual setting. This means the employee doesn’t have to know how to perform each and every task before doing it.

Resolving the issues of digital adoption, a DAP positions an organization to reach its potential.

Part 3

Boosting Productivity When We Are Distracted By Design

Sitting down, prepared to really focus, you get a notification. Another email, and this one seems urgent. Better answer it right away. Oh, you need to run that report again before you can respond…

As soon as the report generates, your phone lights up, followed by a buzz. A quick swipe and you see a relative posted a picture from your childhood—your mind quickly makes a leap from the present to the past. While you scroll through what appears to be a highlight reel of your most embarrassing fashion choices, that project needing attention remains untouched.

Our ancient brains are designed to be distracted, but the modern office demands focus for deep analytical and creative work. By understanding the triggers of distraction and implementing policies that encourage focus, we can reconcile this difference and foster a more productive workforce.

Why Are We So Easily Distracted?

A knowledge worker can sit at her desk, working all day with nearly perfect safety. Her ancestor 200,000 years ago did not have the same luxury.

At any moment throughout this ancestor’s day of foraging, a predator could leap from behind a bush to attack. Hearing and responding to the rustle among the leaves was the only chance to survive a threat. This is why we never stop looking for something to steal our attention.

We are predisposed to prioritize in-the-moment needs over long-term goals because responding to immediate threats promoted our survival14.

But today, in our place at the top of the food chain, with food security, health care, and a number of other vital conveniences—we have all but eliminated surprise threats to survival (at least as our ancestral brains perceived them).

The next time you have trouble focusing at work, you can thank your ancestor’s ability to be distracted for your existence. Unfortunately, it is that same ability to be distracted that slows down our productivity in focused environments.

Being safe and secure—as opposed to exposed and vulnerable—brings us pretty far in the concentration game, but our brains are still wired to respond to any and all stimuli above whatever we are focusing on at the time.

So, what can we do to calm our distracted mind and be more productive?

1. Increase the Productivity of Digital Tools

We have countless productivity enhancing functions at our fingertips. Allowing our digital tools to calculate, predict, monitor, correct, and so on, means that we, personally, don’t have to.

If we unleash the power of our digital tools, ultimately, we relieve the burden usability challenges impose on employees.

Process automation is an effective way to achieve a more streamlined and less burdensome system. The more we can let our tools do the heavy lifting, the better. By using digital tools to their maximum capability, we can do more with less mental strain, which means more room for creative thinking and innovation.

2. Minimize and Manage Multitasking

What we call multitasking is really just our evolutionary disposition of being distracted at play. Studies consistently prove that critical components of good work, such as spotting errors and creativity, decrease with multitasking. Even if we think we are efficiently flying between one task and another, each switch causes some level of disorientation15.

Multitasking is a difficult habit to break, both on an employee and employer level, and it requires a specially-designed environment to overcome our nature.
Employers should discourage employees from juggling multiple projects and tasks, and instead design business expectations to keep the ball in hand.

When managers stay attuned to their employees’ workloads, help set deadlines and prioritization, and provide ample management support, they are empowering their teams to focus on the important tasks and produce high-quality work.

3. Create a Culture that Respects Focus

Open offices environments seem like a good idea. They are cheaper, encourage collaboration, and are an aesthetic improvement to the dreary cubical.

Despite the benefits, experts have found that productivity decreases in open-plan offices because workers are easily distracted. This should come as no surprise given our understanding of how primed we are to pay attention to stimuli around us.

In addition to open-plan designs, there are many cultural habits in the workplace, intended for productivity, that actually that disrupt focus. Communication and collaboration apps promise to connect teams and reduce email but flood us with instant messaging. Quick pop-ins and desk visits demand our attention. Intermittent meetings discourage long blocks of concentrated work.

All of these (and so many more) create a culture where the individual employee is forced to pivot between high-value work and evaluating, responding, and dismissing the signals around them.

Focus takes a backseat to spontaneity, serendipity, and snappy responses.

To change this culture, organizations should create space and boundaries to protect concentrated work.

• Incorporate focus, concentration, and deep thought into
your company values
• Establish “focus hours” when meetings and instant
messaging are restricted
• Reward long-term goal achievements generously
• Design no-distraction retreat areas

And the rest of the time? That’s when it is okay to participate in the chaos of instant messaging, browse the web for the latest information and inspiration, or brainstorm new ideas.

Undergoing organizational
change management? No problem.

Part 4

Let the Sunk Costs Sink

When it comes to digital transformation, advice (including all the points made in this book so far) usually revolves around driving an organization forward. Raising digital dexterity, enabling digital adoption, and boosting productivity are all designed to keep up the momentum of organizational evolution. However, there is still another force to consider, one that stifles progress and creates resistance despite our efforts to move forward.

Sunk costs.

Decisionmakers are subject to the sunk cost fallacy when they hold on to bad investments for fear of accepting what has already been lost16.

Someone makes a decision. It doesn’t go well. But since they have already invested in it, they can’t cut their losses and sometimes even invest more. As organizations pour more and more resources into emerging technologies, they will see some investments not yielding ROI and need to cut their losses.

Digitally Doomed

Along the road of digital transformation, you will pick up a lot of new tools. But if not carefully managed, your toolbox will overfill with redundant, broken, or outdated technology.

Sunk costs in digital transformation create three problems: wasted resources, reduced productivity, and missed opportunity cost.

It’s easy to see that continuing to pay for a technology that doesn’t work is a waste of money. While that is the most obvious waste, other issues contribute to sunk costs. Many platforms have overlapping features. Different teams might unknowingly be using similar platforms to fulfill individual needs when they could simply share one, or tools could be wholly underutilized, if not completely neglected.

With so many tools and business processes, issues such as digital context switching increase. An objective that could be handled within one system, or a modern user-friendly system, is instead complicated and confusing.

And by committing to technology that is not appropriate or the most cutting edge, organizations lose out on better technologies and improved productivity.

Ultimately, you will need to remove the tools from the toolbox that no longer serve their purpose to make room for those that do.

The Ancient Problem of Sunk Costs

As we make investments in digital transformation, we must be aware of what is working, what is not working, and when to cut a bad investment. It should be a simple calculation.

Alas, our ancient brains tend to tell us to keep going.

Researchers wanted to understand the sunk cost fallacy in terms of neuroscience. They designed parallel foraging tasks and conducted their study on mice, rats, and humans. The results showed that all three species have a sensitivity to sunk costs. 

Even when it was clear an activity, such as waiting on a reward, was unproductive, a subject was less willing to quit if they had already invested significant time and energy in it. 

They also found that the attachment to a sunk cost only occurred after an initial decision to invest time and energy had been made17.

It might be clear that something isn’t serving us, but once we have invested time into a decision, our ancient brain is reluctant to let it go.

Releasing the Organization to Move Fully Forward

If we are aware of our tendency to hold onto sunk costs, we can clear the emotional cloud tying us to the weight of bad investments.

Management should weed through IT investments with an approach of maximizing potential returns and minimizing complexity.

Having more software is not necessarily an advantage. This is a true case of quality over quantity. The less employees need to context shift, weave between large numbers of applications to complete a single task, or use a new software for each individual task, the more efficient they can be.

By letting go of low-value software investments, you can lower the burden each employee must shoulder in their day-to-day work.

By paring down to the tools they really need, employees can increase focus, decrease distraction, and boost overall productivity.

Just as the employee is unburdened of the weight of sunk costs, so too is the organization. That freedom can greatly empower the organization to lean into the initiatives that push and pull them into the future of work.

Empower Your Greatest Assets

Often times, the word “ancient” is equated to “out-of-date,” “unintelligent,” and “inefficient.” Our brain is anything but. By raising digital dexterity, enabling digital adoption, boosting productivity, and throwing out sunk costs we can help our brains thrive in the modern context and merge our processing power with the power of technology. In doing so, we become better employees and more effective, efficient organizations.

Our ancient brain has transported us across vast continents, delivered us to the moon, and built the very technology that will catvapult us into the next stage of human capabilities. 

However, without an understanding of how and why our brain operates the way it does, we will unknowingly battle our biology the entire way.

When we understand our brains, we are better able to navigate our modern world, even while running on an operating system from 200,000 years ago.


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