There is no doubt about it—we are a distracted society working in distracted workplaces (even when the workplaces are our own homes!).
Just think about the number of times when alerts sound on our mobile devices—assuming they are not turned off. Now add in the pressures of our multi-tasked culture and the 4,000-10,000 advertisements messages we receive in one day—it’s surprising we can pay attention to anything.
The costs of such distraction in terms of health and work-life balance are well-known. Our distraction damages our relationships and our time management abilities. We finish the workday exhausted and feel we have accomplished nothing of any real value.
We talk to others, think we are listening, but fail to remember more than a quarter of what was said, or what we read during the day.
Distractions in the workplace impact productivity in two ways
Distractions also damage productivity. It’s not just the distraction that takes us away from the task at hand. According to research done by Gloria Mark in a landmark study at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of about 25 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be exact) to return to the original task after a single interruption.
Why are we so distracted? It’s easy to blame technology, social media, phones that are always at our sides. technology distractions, however, can, and should be managed. There are other reasons that employees can’t focus on their work.
Dealing with these means dealing with various kinds of workplace dysfunctions that actually could limit our tendency to be distracted.
Here are 6 common workplace distractions and what leaders and senior managers can do in order to get employees off such a “fragmented focus” pathway, and kick up productivity.
Competing priorities are a common cause for distractions
In a well-known episode of The Office, Michael Scott uses the term “as ASAP as possible”. It’s a feeling we all recognise. There are three reports due, all with the ASAP deadline. Or the team must complete sales proposals for more than one client, and the manager says they are all “top priority”.
Competing priorities with unclear expectations are not only the leading cause of distractions. The unreasonable deadlines and pressure that comes with vague expectations can lead to serious burn out: This often becomes the case when an employee misses one overly aggressive deadline, then falls behind on the next thing, leading to a cascade of “failure”.
Managers need to step up as leaders, not just bosses, and help their direct reports manage multiple deadlines by setting reasonable priorities.
Typically, this is done by talking directly with the employee and not assuming how long a certain task is going to take. Decisions then need to be made on priorities, something that should not be left to the employee alone.
What can we “live with”? Perhaps one report is due Friday, but only an outline of the second one due that same day.
Uncertainty due to changes that aren’t communicated well
When employees don’t feel secure about their job, the increased stress and negative emotions that go with such insecurity impact their work performance and productivity in a major way. It may be difficult these days for leadership to make absolute guarantees to employees about their jobs, or the chance of organisational change.
However, leaders and managers still need to learn to communicate honestly, frequently and realistically about possible changes. They need to learn how to address the real worries of the workers, e.g. “if there are changes, how will this affect my job?” “are we talking about full shut down or a partial closure, or do we know yet? ”
Good communication builds trust and security. Even during times of disruption, secure employees are happier and more productive than those worrying each day that this might be the week that they are blindsided by the unexpected.
Lack of feedback from managers
Children love it when a teacher or parent praises them as a “good girl!” or for doing “a great job.” Once we’re adults, however, many of us work hours and days at a time without a single comment about our accomplishments, or reinforcement of what we’re doing right.
This is particularly true at a time when many are working from home away from any kind of immediate feedback loop—that is, until one day when we are told that we are doing something all wrong!
When employees feel their work is being evaluated using metrics they can’t control, anxiety results, even chronic despair and frustration. Now we have an employee clearly distracted from the task at hand, staring aimlessly at a screen but not getting anything done.
One way to address this is through performance metrics set alongside a manager or team leader. According to a Gallup Study on Employee Burnout, employees who believe that such performance metrics are within their control are 55% less likely to experience burnout frequently.”
In addition to managers providing feedback and setting metrics, the employee now knows who to involve, and the best way to approach the task. Distractions diminish and employee productivity improves
Workplace gossip that breeds
Think about it. If a workplace has 1000 employees and each spends one hour a day gossiping in person and online, you’ve likely lost 1,000 hours in employee productivity! While it may seem like harmless chatter, allowing gossip to persist, or simply overlooking it, can cause a variety of consequences.
Gossip frequently causes decline in trust and morale because employees no longer feel comfortable in the office. Additionally, it can lead to the loss of your best talent particularly if it leads to a toxic workplace.
Leaders and senior managers need to be clear in terms of what is tolerated in a workplace in terms of gossip. They also need to be excellent communicators so there aren’t issues that employees are left to assume on their own. And, leaders need to confront the problem and address it swiftly.
In addition, clear communication is paramount. When leaders are vague, inconsistent, or just absent in their communication, employees fill in their own blanks. If there’s a major change facing the company, leadership should address the situation openly.
If there are rules to follow, everyone should be treated consistently. These are the issues that get people “talking”—and not working.
Expectations that employees respond 24/7
Everything is urgent these days, and mostly, such urgency is created by others. While it may sound productive to have employees respond to emails after work and on the weekends, encouraging them to do so actually hurts job performance.
It’s not just the process of receiving the emails (clearly a distraction!) Employees who are expected to be available 24/7, find that they cannot disconnect from work. Such disconnection translates into poor work-life balance and causes emotional exhaustion, which in turn, impacts productivity rather than increases it.
Unmanaged workplace conflict that’s mentally exhausting
Conflict is inevitable. But when conflict escalates and is allowed to go on without a resolution, it becomes distracting and costly. It also can grow like wildfire and impact others. As it drags on, conflicts leave employees emotionally and mentally exhausted.
With ongoing interpersonal issues hanging over their heads, no one can focus to their fullest ability, which leads to loss of productivity.
Leaders and managers need to keep on top of conflict that’s impacting staff (even those not directly affected). Giving corrective feedback through coaching gets people back on track; there also are opportunities for building relationships and setting up teams to succeed that can reduce workplace conflicts, or at least, manage them.
We’re not going to eliminate all, or even most of the distractions in today’s workplace. But by looking at where we can improve our key management skills, it is possible to lessen some of the workplace distractions that are negatively impacting our team’s success.
In turn, this will increase both the productivity and the job satisfaction levels of our employees without adding more hours in the day or pressure to get more done.
About the Author
Rachelle is President of Einblau & Associates, a full-service management consulting firm serving clients across North America. She specialises in leadership coaching and training, strengths-based assessments, and succession planning.