July 07, 2021 | Blog

Why Context Matters

Here’s a little quiz. 

Say a person tells you to, “Get outta here!” Do you:

  1. Stand your ground, but point out they are being rude.
  2. Laugh, and reply, “No, seriously!”
  3. Leave as quickly as possible.

Does this feel like a trick question? It’s probably because you’re not being given enough information about the situation in order to figure out the right answer. That added context is critical. If you’re in a burning building when someone says “Get outta here,” you’re going to leave. But if you’ve just told the most ridiculous but true story to a friend and they laughingly say, “Get outta here,” you’re going to have a very different reaction.

Whether you’re moving 60 miles an hour down the highway or walking down a factory floor, what’s going on around you – the context of your environment – will determine what behavior is appropriate, and what decisions make the most sense.

 

The Brain on Context

Your brain acts much differently when you’re driving a vehicle on a highway compared to when you’re sitting at a desk. Moving between different contexts will cause your brain to operate by different sets of rules. This cognitive flexibility is key to how you get through your day.

Over time, as you experience different situations, your brain learns what’s acceptable behavior depending on the context it recognizes. These different sets of rules are stored in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning action. As you go about your day, a region of your brain called the thalamus is constantly adapting to changing environments or events, instantly calling up the appropriate rules collected over time based on your lifetime of experiences. At the same time, it suppresses those rules that aren’t relevant. This unconscious toggle is what lets you go from a boardroom to a factory floor without missing a beat.

All this brain chemistry is fascinating, but why should it matter to you? The reality is, nothing in life happens in a vacuum. Every action taken or idea formed is based on circumstances around us. Whether the context is a physical environment or previous events, taking it into account can dramatically change what’s considered appropriate. 

This is particularly true in the workplace, where even the smallest comment or the simplest action can hold incredible weight. Consider these four ways that context influences the way we work:

Safety

If you or your employees work in a hazardous environment, even small, everyday actions can have serious consequences. Something as benign as telling a joke can be unsafe if it’s told to someone while they are operating heavy machinery. What about checking your phone? We do it nearly a hundred times a day, but when you’re behind the wheel of a car or on a job site, that momentary distraction can prove incredibly dangerous.

Productivity

Output produced during a specific work period is heavily influenced by contextual factors. Availability of workers, manufacturing capacity, customer commitments, revenue targets, even time, are all contextual factors that can swing productivity metrics up or down.

Communication

Conversation can be a minefield, especially in the workplace. Sometimes the exact same comment can have drastically different interpretations and effects, depending on who is saying it, where they are saying it (e.g., in-person versus in a text), and even how it is being received. For example, providing constructive feedback on someone’s performance can be very valuable when shared one-on-one, but probably not if it’s shared in a group setting. 

Security

It’s critical for any organization to protect its digital assets and control access to its network. With access enabled through mobile devices, understanding when and where someone may be accessing that network or data is an element of most mobile management solutions. But what about usage that may be appropriate in one location but not another? A mobile device can record images and sound – perfect for documenting issues at a customer job site, perhaps, but maybe not issues raised during confidential customer meetings. 

 

Context Matters, Even if We Ignore It

Context informs what behavior is appropriate, but there’s one area where we often throw context out the window – mobile devices. They’re always by our sides, and their barrage of notifications presents a near-constant distraction. We often give in to that distraction regardless of the context. If you’re behind the wheel, in a meeting, or just working at your desk, and you feel your phone vibrate, you instinctively want to reach for it. Whether the consequence is wasting time, appearing rude, or even a serious accident, we’ll often ignore it and check our phones anyway.

We need to bring context back to the way we use mobile technology. Here’s another quiz to try it out:

If you get a text from your boss about an urgent work matter, do you: 

  1. Respond right away.
  2. Wait twenty minutes then respond.
  3. Ignore it completely. 

You would probably pick option A, and if you’re on the clock at your desk then that’s the right answer. But what about in other contexts? If you’re behind the wheel on your way to work, pick option B; play it safe and wait until you’re no longer driving. What if you’re on vacation and the text is in a group chat? You can probably just ignore it until you get back to work.

This is all easy to say, but it’s harder to actually break the habit. But what if a mobile device could have that same situational awareness as your brain; recognizing its context and calling up appropriate rules? Then, that device could be a useful tool for work, instead of a potentially dangerous distraction. Learn more by clicking here.

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