Using the wrong metrics can give a false impression of engagement when workers are actually bored
Vogue dating columnist Annie Lord recently bemoaned the general discontent with the apps that have come to dominate the modern world of courting.
She cites data from the Pew Research Center showing that nearly half of dating app users end up feeling more of a sense of frustration than optimism about the prospects of finding ‘the one’.
Underpinning this discontent is a strong sense that people don't behave particularly well when they are participating in dating apps.
Strategies such as ghosting (when dates vanish without an explanation), benching (when people are put on hold until somebody better comes along), and breadcrumbing (giving just enough attention to maintain interest but never committing) are now common forms of behaviour online.
In our research of popular dating apps – namely Tinder and Bumble – we found ghosting is something that often occurs because people are simply... bored. In fact, many are bored to begin with, so install the apps to try to alleviate that boredom.
They're then made more bored by the many unfulfilling encounters they have via the apps, which prompts them to ghost people, despite considering the act rude and inappropriate when it happens to them.
And the apps themselves often don't help, with few providing any means to make the conversations between people more interesting.
This seemingly undesirable situation is further compounded by the sense among the app dating companies themselves that the users’ experience is in fact altogether positive.
When they assess the usage of the apps by simplistic and aggregate measures, such as number of users, time spent on the site, and the number of messages users exchange, then the apps could seem to be a roaring success.
Indeed, the lack of seemingly viable alternatives prompts many of those that delete the apps in frustration to reinstall them and give them another go.
This cycle of dismay gives the impression that boredom and dissatisfaction are actually key factors that drive engagement.
It is a discovery whose implications run far beyond the confines of the online dating industry, not least of which because the rest of the economy is in the midst of the so-called ‘quiet quitting’ phenomenon that is driven by similar levels of boredom and lack of fulfilment at work.
For instance, an anonymous survey conducted at Blind, an online community for tech professionals, revealed around two-thirds of respondents were bored at work.
It's a world in which Gallup data states just 32 per cent of employees are engaged at work, with nearly 20 per cent saying they're actively disengaged, and staff feel that way in large part because their workplace needs aren't being met.
How to effectively measure employee engagement
Our research into boredom in the online dating world has a couple of key implications for business.
The first is that it's important to measure the right things when it comes to gauging the level of engagement among a workforce. As with dating apps, it can be tempting to focus on the things that are relatively easy to measure and assume that this accurately captures engagement.
For instance, employee attendance ticks that box, and managers might assume that an employee sitting at their desk must be engaged, but of course, the quiet quitting phenomenon tells us otherwise.
To effectively measure employee engagement, managers need to understand what's important to their staff. This is very unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all thing, with some wanting teamwork, others career development, and others effective communication.
Managers can then perform what's known as a ‘drivers analysis’, which attempts to hone in on the things that really have an impact on engagement through surveys of employees, using likert scales for each factor. A percentage share for each factor can then be produced, giving managers a good indication of what drives employee engagement among their staff and address any shortcomings.
The second key takeaway from our research is that it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that boredom is always a bad thing. After all, we're driven by the desire for our workforce to be as engaged as possible, so boredom must mean those efforts are failing. Research shows, however, that a degree of boredom can actually make us more creative.
The researchers found that participants who were given a boring task to perform before then trying to create some interesting artwork ended up producing more creative projects than those who were not induced by boredom beforehand. This was especially so among participants who had certain personality traits, including cognitive drive, openness to new experiences, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to learn new things.
By inducing boredom in such people, it triggers something known as ‘divergence-seeking behaviours’, which is when the curious among us explore in an effort to break out of the intellectual straightjacket we've been placed in to begin with.
It remains to be seen whether (and how) organisations should deliberately try and engineer boredom in the workplace, but it is a reminder that small amounts of boredom might actually be beneficial.
At the moment, however, this boredom is not being channelled in the right way, with some of our interviewees revealing they mostly use dating apps while they’re bored at work.
Managers could try to provide more productive outlets for the divergence-seeking behaviours that are produced by boredom, perhaps via enterprise social media and channels that encourage employees to come forward with ideas.
There was a strong sense among the dating app users we studied that they stuck it out because they didn’t believe that any of the other apps were any better. However, their continued usage of the apps seems to result in increasingly cynical and lacklustre engagement, which further exacerbates the boredom spreading through the dating app network.
For managers, it is important that they avoid falling into the same trap and ensure that false engagement isn’t sought just for the sake of gaming the metrics without having substantial progress being made in terms of things that truly matter to employees and the organisation.
Failure to do so seems likely to hurt organisations and result in similar disenchantment among employees as we see among the dating users we interviewed.
Narr, G. and Luong, A. 2022. Bored ghosts in the dating app assemblage : how dating app algorithms couple ghosting behaviors with a mood of boredom. The Communication Review, 1-23.
Anh Luong is Assistant Professor of Business Analytics and teaches Business Analytics on the Undergraduate programme. She also lectures on Advanced Data Analytics on the MSc Business Analytics.
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