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Cognitive load: The bane of Employee Experience and how to overcome it

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It has taken me forever to write this one blog. 

My writing process is pretty simple – Conceptualise, research, create structure, do more research, write, get feedback, edit, add references, publish.

But now my writing process looks something like this - Start research, answer email, find 5 year old’s art worksheet, send Slack messages, continue research, get on Zoom call, delete random marketing text messages, respond to Slack messages, lunch, more Slack, another hour-long Zoom call, beg kids to turn down the volume, check and respond to email, start writing structure, answer phone calls – personal and work-related, help 9-year-old log in to music class, check and approve social media posts, look at Instagram for ‘inspiration’, pull a plastic toy out of dog’s mouth, give design feedback on Canva, answer the door, remind myself what my structure was going to look like, read breaking news on the news app, line up more calls for the week, ‘quick’ huddle on Slack – and, would you look at the time. It’s already 6.30 pm. I’m exhausted so best to pick this up again tomorrow.

Rinse, repeat.

What should have taken me not more than 3-4 hours of work, can sometimes take me days to complete. 

What I experience regularly is captured in one succinct phrase - ‘context switching’. The concept, while more used in the world of software, is a serious productivity killer. According to psychologist Gerald Weinberg, it can result in an 80% loss of productive time. But getting into his book – Quality Software Management would of course be another context switch. So, for today, let’s talk about the price you pay for context switching.

Reader, meet cognitive load.

What is cognitive load anyway?

"Cognitive load" can be defined as the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Our brains take in information and store it first in our short-term memory, which then transfers to our working memory, and then finally only the most important stuff makes it to our long-term memory bank. If your working memory gets more information than it can handle comfortably, that information doesn’t make it any further. This leads to learning loss, confusion, frustration, and in some cases, utter disengagement and bad decision making.

If you can remember the first part of the definition, congratulations, you’re doing better than most.

A lot has been written about Cognitive Load Theory and its impact on learning. The University of North Carolina published a paper studying the impact of technology overload on workers. It is being cited as a key metric that needs to be considered when we measure employee productivity, edging out factors like commute time or long office hours which are no longer as relevant in a remote/hybrid world. 

The problem of too much information

And yet, how many companies are actually looking at how cognitive load impacts their employees? Our limited brains are paying the price of our reliance on technology and being virtually ‘connected’ at all times. Workers in the US waste more than three hours each day because they have too many open windows on their screens. The University of California - Irvine published a study that shows that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from a distraction and get back to the task.

The solution to too much information

Again, the answer to countering cognitive load lies in the way it is broken down when you’re providing information. Academically speaking (at the cost of adding to your cognitive load), it can be broken down into: intrinsic, extrinsic, and germane

Hopefully, you’re still following.

You are here: you’ve realized you are talking to an audience that has a lot of information across various streams. So, you’d like to ease their cognitive load. Below are a few steps that we suggest:

1. Firstly, know your audience

Measure expertise or skill level and then design the experience. If you’re building for your own team, knowing how familiar your employees are with certain processes will help you either skip ahead or slow down so everyone gets an even playing field.

2. Break the information down into parts

The theory of ‘problem space’ talks about the gap between the goal and your current state. If the goal is complex and requires the employee to hold too much information in his working memory at one time, his brain just cannot process the information efficiently. Learning is impaired and ineffective. This is why it helps to break it down into manageable chunks, delivered in spurts rather than, for instance, emailing him or her a 30-page employee handbook.

3. Focus their attention

If there are multiple sources of information, the brain gets divided making it harder to process information and form the right connections. If the knowledge piece is particularly important, for e.g. the company’s DEI policy and how it impacts their life at work, then it will help focus their attention if they are asked to complete a step-by-step guided journey that covers every aspect of the policy.

4. Mix it up

Your visual working memory is separate from your auditory working memory. By varying the modes of delivering information - visual, auditory, audio-visual - you can extend the capacity of your employee’s working memory as it stores information under two separate categories. For example, the information doesn’t feel as overwhelming when delivered as a 2-minute video from the CEO versus a 3-page document.

What gives us the confidence that these steps work?

Because, we’ve been doing just that for our customers and their 1 million+ employees, across the world.

At Tydy, we are dedicated to helping companies solve this problem by sending the right information at the right time to the right person. Our intelligent communications solution connects all your data, understands your employees while integrating with your existing tech stack to create a smooth and simplified Employee Experience. 

You can create multiple journeys for as many scenarios as you can imagine, targeting specific employee segments, based on important milestones. This means your employees get an experience that is designed to be simple, efficient, and with minimal cognitive load. 

So, go ahead, give us a try. And if not, let me know at debkanya@tydy.it if the above steps worked for you. I promise I will respond to your feedback emails before I chase my dog down to retrieve my headphones.

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