Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is an anxiety created by the idea that something exciting is going on somewhere else, usually online … and you are ‘missing out.’  

It’s FOMO that drives us to constantly check Facebook for new posts and email for new messages. And it’s more than just a social itch. 

Psychologists link FOMO to dopamine-seeking behaviors associated with gambling and other addictive habits. Like winning the jackpot, it is that unpredictability of getting a "hit" — in the form of a shocking post or juicy email — that produces the dopamine to keep us coming back for more.

While psychologically stimulating, the constant search for new information is exhausting. It causes us to be distracted, leads us to forget important details and make mistakes as we hop from one (uncompleted) activity to another. 

In the consumer world of social media, FOMO is a well-known phenomenon, but FOMO at work is new. While it also induces anxiety, unlike its consumer cousin, workplace FOMO has nothing to do with feeling left out socially and everything to do with dropping the ball on important work assignments. 

Workplace FOMO Leads to Stress

We all know the feeling. We are at the beach "relaxing" with the family, but a nagging feeling persists that something is going on in the office. 

"Is my biggest customer having a meltdown?" "Is the Wall Street Journal reaching out for comment on the latest market development?" "Has a competitor stolen my most promising deal for the quarter?"

Workplace FOMO is driven by the fear of missing important tasks and lost opportunities: it’s all about the dread of incurring the wrath of customers, co-workers and managers. To allay workplace FOMO, we unceasingly check our computers and phones for new updates.  

Workplace FOMO is a form of digital Russian Roulette, where the object is to toggle between email, documents and business apps, hoping not to find an exploding bombshell. Unlike consumer FOMO, at work we are not seeking a dopamine rush, but rather hoping to avoid a heart-pounding email or order cancellation notification that will disturb our peace of mind.  

This is the FOMO anxiety felt by today’s information workers, one that only is becoming worse with the proliferation of mobile devices. 

The nonstop appearance of notification popups on the computer screen has ballooned into a continuous torrent of smartphone pings and buzzes. Annoying interruptions torment us on the train, at the gym, at the dinner table, at our child’s soccer practice, in the bedroom and while on vacation. 

Paradoxically, the only thing worse than the endless stream of notifications is the absence of notifications. This is the truly noxious nature of workplace FOMO: it produces an anxiety when the phone buzzes and an even greater anxiety when it stops buzzing. 

Either way, we are being stressed out like never before. And it looks like it will get worse before it gets better.  

Increasing Number of Tools = Increasing Level of Stress 

Combatting workplace FOMO requires navigating a large number of digital mines waiting to explode. 

In addition to ubiquitous email, we are increasingly dependent on a growing number of document sharing tools, enterprise applications, cloud services and social tools to get work done. Most of us regularly use at least four or five business applications like Oracle, SAP or Salesforce.  

Officially, we share documents with colleagues and partners using enterprise services like SharePoint, Box or Jive, but we also maintain a backchannel of consumer-grade services like Dropbox or Hightail. 

And we connect to colleagues using a hodgepodge of business and consumer services like Skype, Skype for Business, Slack, HipChat, WhatsApp, text messaging and dozens of other real-time communications utilities. The act of constantly cycling through all these apps and services is mentally exhausting.

Workplace FOMO Leads to Information Overload

Any yet, the psychological need to stay on top of things keeps us coming back for more. This information-seeking behavior in turn, induces a high cognitive load in the form of information overload.

Ironically, this overload is not necessarily caused by an overabundance of information. In an enterprise setting, the most potent, but least recognized cause of overload is associated with a low quality of information. For example, a salesperson might need to simultaneously process 15 notifications. Among them are the following:

  • an email from a colleague about a new sales opportunity at an existing client
  • a new help desk post about a support case at the same client 
  • pricing negotiation and competitive documents exchanged with a reseller who is in daily contact with the client

Each of these sources may refer to the same client by a different name, use a different project code and include a different set of colleagues to be notified. While all three snippets of information relate to the same business activity, it requires a high degree of cognitive effort to connect the pieces so they can be acted upon, to say nothing about the other 12 unrelated notifications that need to be filtered out.  

It’s this disjoint that yields low information quality and creates overload, even at low volume.  

Notifications Exacerbate the Issue

Because continuous cycling through all the information sources is mentally taxing, most of us turn to email alerts for relief.  

With email alerts, when something "interesting" happens, the app or service generates an email notification. This approach puts all of the updates in one place — the same place we already spend our work time  — email.  

While effective in theory, this strategy leads to a huge increase in email messages. At first, we comb through the alerts, but very quickly we become desensitized, because the overwhelming number of alerts are inconsequential to our most important business activities. At the end of the day, we ignore the notifications and go back to square one.

But don’t lose hope. To deal with FOMO, a new generation of engineers is looking for solutions. And one promising direction of research is artificial intelligence. 

Can Artificial Intelligence Solve the Problem?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is back after years of being out of vogue. Platform vendors such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and IBM have all announced AI initiatives. Most recently, AI efforts center around machine learning bot frameworks, which are being touted as the brains behind the next generation of human-computer interaction. With bots, rather than use an app or website to order a pizza or file a vacation request, you will simply ‘chat with,’ or ‘talk to’ a bot, who will figure out what you want and fulfill your request using simple conversation. 

Today’s bots employ machine learning and natural language processing to create order out of information chaos. Taking unstructured data and arranging them into a set of ordered tasks and activities is something AI is uniquely suited to do. 

It’s for this reason that AI appears so promising for dealing with workplace FOMO. AI’s ability to distill large quantities of disconnected information into an ordered structure seems to be an effective way of overcoming the information overload associated with workplace FOMO. 

But AI isn't without limitations. Specifically, AI is effective when capturing and processing a complete set of relevant data, and when acting on a well-defined goal.  Ordering a pizza, winning at Jeopardy, or even approving a purchase request at work, are all assignments where AI can be immediately put to work.  

Examples of AI-based tools in the workplace include Microsoft’s Delve and IBM’s Verse, which provide AI-generated recommendations for things like documents or email messages to read. 

But in the broader scope of work, AI only goes so far. While AI can piece together disconnected apps and services and make recommendations, making business decisions still requires applying creativity, values and ethics, all of which still require the human touch.  

The Future of FOMO is Bright

So, are we destined for a dystopian future of ever-increasing workplace FOMO? 

Probably not.  

In the short term, I predict we will see an increase in workplace FOMO induced by information overload. 

But in the longer term, emerging tools and technologies that combine the best of AI with the best of human-computer interaction practices will aggregate disconnected information to support human decision making. We can already see this in current visualization and intelligent aggregation technologies, but we can expect to see many more such technologies emerge over the next few years.  

Title image by Pete (public domain)