Focus and concentration are hot commodities these days, with social media, open office layouts and short attention spans running rampant in workplaces. According to a 2018 survey by Udemy, more than 70% of workers report feeling distracted on the job, with 16% saying they almost always feel unfocused.
The main culprits, according to an infographic by Atlassian, are excessive emails, pointless meetings and constant interruptions, with social media coming in at a close fourth.
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The average worker checks their email 36 times an hour and takes 16 minutes to refocus after handling a new email. Many employees attend 60-plus meetings per month, through which 91% of employees say they daydreamed. And it takes most workers two hours per day to recover from interruptions from co-workers.
All of this lost work is costing American businesses upward of $650 billion per year, and it is leading to vicious cycles of employee dissatisfaction: Productivity loss causes a longer workday, which causes stress and frustration, which leads to a lack of engagement.
Employees are inundated with distractions from all sides, but the most discussed culprit is the smartphone. [Interested in employee monitoring solutions for your business? Check out our best picks and reviews to see what's out there.]
Smartphones at work
There are conflicting opinions on whether smartphones increase or decrease productivity in the workplace – nearly 60% of workers feel that having a handheld device increases their productivity, while 35% claim the devices increase distractions during the workday.
It comes down to how the device is being used. If you use your smartphone exclusively for productivity, like managing your calendar or connecting with clients, then it is probably doing more good than harm.
However, with all those productivity apps comes social media, the ultimate distraction. Over 55% of employees said that social media at work is either a "somewhat" or "significant" distraction.
It can be all too easy to jump from your emails to Facebook, even if you tell yourself it's just to get rid of the ever-present notification bubbles. The next thing you know, you've wasted 25 minutes scrolling through your newsfeed.
"It's expected that employees will be inundated with plenty of distractions throughout the workday," said Dean Debnam, chief executive of Workplace Options. "The important thing to remember is for employees to find a way to balance their workday and find ways to focus."
Perhaps you could start by asking employees to set "do not disturb" periods for phone notifications (except in case of emergencies, of course). You can also recommend employees place their phones out of sight – such as in a bag or drawer.
There are apps that will help you track your phone usage, which might give you an idea of how much time your employees may be wasting.
The internet at work
An employee monitoring system at your small business could be one answer to the problem of distracted employees. A program such as Activity Monitor will give you insight into your employees' online activities. It displays how employees spent their time, which websites they visited, what files they downloaded and their number of IM chats.
Before you implement any such technological monitoring, set up an official company policy about non-work use of company equipment. Transparency is always a good practice – be forthcoming about how your monitoring aligns with company goals and how you're going to do it.
According to a survey conducted by Dtex Systems, "77% of employed Americans would be less concerned with their employer monitoring their digital activity on personal or work-issued devices they use to conduct work, as long as they are transparent about it and let them know upfront."
Plus, there are legal concerns when it comes to monitoring online behavior. There is practically no expectation of privacy on a company computer, but you need to be careful about what types of data you're acquiring and how you're storing that data. You don't want to run afoul of privacy laws, such as HIPAA. If a data breach were to occur, for instance, it could leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit.
Other ideas on how to combat workplace distractions
So how should businesses tackle this issue? There's no simple answer.
"This is a big question," said Nancy Snell, a certified professional business coach. "Issues must be addressed culturally and start from the top down."
Many companies adopt no-email or no-meeting days or have strict policies regarding cell phone use at work. Some use a culture of flexibility and remote work to help employees customize their work environment day to day as needed.
Brad Killinger of Chief Learning Officer recommends implementing a "golden hour" where, "for one hour, companies create a focused work environment devoid of distractions by asking employees to block apps, chat, and notifications; curtail phone usage; avoid email; put the kibosh on meetings; and deny outside visitor access, etc."
A golden hour can add more than $400 million annually to a company with 5,000 employees and improve employees' peace of mind and engagement, according to Killinger.
Rhett Power at Inc. recommends employers emphasize to their employees being on task over presenteeism, which is when an employee shows up to work for the sake of physically being there rather than getting quality work done. Send the message that completing the task is what is most important, whether it gets done from a desk or the couch.
You can also incorporate time-management skill workshops as part of your onboarding process and offer top-up trainings periodically to help employees build and maintain crucial productivity skills.
The important part of any anti-distraction strategy is to avoid micromanaging employees and making them feel distrusted or watched – keep your focus on providing opportunities for employees to do what works best for them in terms of staying focused, and remember that needs will vary.
For example, you may have an employee who needs background noise as they work, and another employee may need to get up and walk around every hour. When it comes to concentration, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Additional reporting by Ned Smith.