Workplace distractions just seem to keep piling up these days. When it isn’t the phone ringing, it’s an email in your inbox or a coworker at your cubicle doorway. Of course, these days, you might be working in an open office without even a cubicle panel to give you some peace and quiet. There seems to be nowhere you can go to get away from interruptions.
But there’s one demographic that seems born to live this high paced life. Gen Y kids are constantly multi-tasking. They appear to get bored if they aren’t plugged in to the internet on at least a couple of devices at once, with a soundtrack pumping through their earbuds to boot. Surely they must able to cope with the need to switch quickly from task to task – or even to divide their attention between multiple tasks at the same time.
Are Gen Y Brains Just Developmentally Different?
According to Dr, Jay L. Brand’s review of contemporary research in this field, it’s not that simple. It’s true that Gen Y is very adept at doing lots of things at once – but only if these tasks are so well rehearsed that they are basically automatic. If you want young workers to do something that requires them to switch their brain fully to the “on” position, they need to turn off other distractions. “For complex, unpredictable, demanding tasks, such as the ones that often confront knowledge workers, their neurocognitive machinery remains subservient to the bottleneck of doing only one thing at a time if high-quality performance is necessary.”
It appears that it’s not really the brain that’s different in younger workers, just the behavior in how the brain is used. There are deep-seated responses that can’t simply be erased with the introduction of new technology. For example, it is possible for humans to “screen out” a lot of background noises. But they can’t choose to ignore the sound of their native tongue. It reaches down into the mind and demands attention. “Up to 80% redundant, speech is well-learned and processed to the level of semantics and meaning automatically; thus, neither younger nor older employees can “learn” to ignore speech around them.”
Employees of all ages who need to focus their attention on a specific complex task need a similar degree of protection from noise and other distractions. Higher cubicle walls or desk dividers can be one piece of the solution.