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10 Distractions That Kill Workplace Productivity

Brandi Calero-Holmes
Brandi Calero-Holmes

Smartphones, the internet, social media and email are among the 10 biggest workplace productivity killers. Here's how to get your team back on track.

  • A wide variety of workplace distractions negatively impact employees.
  • Smartphones, the internet, social media, and email are among the 10 biggest workplace productivity killers.
  • There are ways to encourage productivity at work, including taking timed breaks, working close to productive co-workers and being publicly accountable.
  • This article is for business owners and managers who want to minimize distractions and boost productivity in the workplace.

Technology boosts your productivity in some ways, but it hurts it in others, according to a CareerBuilder study of 2,175 hiring and human resources managers across a variety of industries and company sizes. The study detailed some of the biggest distractions in the workplace that negatively impact productivity.

These distractions aren’t limited to technology. Employees can get sidetracked by wildly different things, and even the slightest threat to an employee’s attention span can tank an otherwise productive workday.

Here’s a look at the top 10 workplace distractions that are costing businesses money, along with more productivity-killers, how distractions hurt efficiency and production and some easy ways to boost productivity.

Did You Know?

Companies have lost hundreds of billions of dollars annually in employee time theft, which is often caused by distractions at work.

Top 10 workplace distractions

The employers surveyed by CareerBuilder noted the following as the most common distractions at work:

  1. Cell phones
  2. Internet browsing
  3. Gossip
  4. Social media
  5. Email
  6. Conversations with co-workers
  7. Meetings
  8. Smoke or snack breaks
  9. Noisy co-workers
  10. Sitting in a cubicle

Notably, more than half of the employers CareerBuilder surveyed said the biggest workplace distraction came from employees using their smartphones, while 44% cited employees using the internet. It’s easy to understand how the lure of texting, mobile games and surfing the web can sidetrack even the most committed employee.

But technology can’t take all the blame for diverting employees from their tasks. The study revealed that 37% of employers pointed to office gossip, while 27% mentioned co-workers stopping by to chat as their biggest productivity killers.

“Between the internet, cell phones and co-workers, there are so many stimulants in today’s workplace [that] it’s easy to see how employees get sidetracked,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer of CareerBuilder.

Other workplace distractions

Aside from the top 10 productivity killers, various everyday circumstances can unknowingly derail employees’ best intentions. Here are some everyday situations that can sap productivity.

Clutter can clutter the mind.

Surprisingly, the study calls out clutter as a workplace-productivity inhibitor. A messy desk or office can impact an employee’s focus, limiting their ability to process information. Confusion and disorder are difficult to manage when someone’s trying to work, leaving employees unable to focus on the tasks at hand. This distraction and confusion can lead to stress and anxiety for the employee.

To combat distractions due to clutter, employees should get rid of any unnecessary items that surround them. They should also organize papers in appropriate folders and files or, better yet, use electronic storage methods, such as a document management system. Finding a document management solution eliminates the need for physical paper copies but maintain an orderly record of important files and documents.

Electronic storage methods eliminate the need for additional physical storage, such as filing cabinets, which also take up space.


If you’re looking for a document management solution for your office, read our reviews of the best document management software providers. Compare their prices and features to find one that works for you.

Hunger can ruin focus.

Finding hunger on this distraction list may surprise you, but everyone can agree that hunger can make it virtually impossible to focus. It’s wise for employers to make sure employees take their regular breaks and lunches and stay as healthy as possible. Though it might seem more productive to work through lunch and keep plugging away, it actually hurts productivity. When an employee ignores their needs, they are less likely to focus on work.

Did You Know?

Making sure your employees take breaks isn’t just a way to help them focus; your state may require it. Be sure to understand your state’s meal and break laws, and make sure you’re in compliance.

How do distractions affect productivity?

Even the slightest distraction can cause an employee to take longer to complete a task, according to an Association for Psychological Science survey. Not only does the distraction extend the length of time it takes to complete a task, but it can decrease the quality of the employee’s work. It’s important to understand how distractions impact employee productivity.

1. Employees feel less productive.

When something distracts an employee, their attention is directed elsewhere; at some point, they have to shift their attention back to the task at hand. They may ultimately feel less productive because they haven’t been able to complete a task promptly. Their decreased productivity can cause discouragement, which, in turn, can further impact productivity.

2. Relationships with co-workers can deteriorate.

Things are further complicated if an employee’s unfinished work becomes a bottleneck, preventing co-workers from completing their tasks and leaving them feeling frustrated and resentful.

If one team member is perceived as a “slacker,” their reputation can take a hit, and co-worker relationships can suffer.

3. Unresolved distractions impact company culture.

Employees and managers may not be talking about the distractions during the workday, but they should. Leaving distractions at work unresolved can cause tension and resentment to build throughout the company. An employee’s job satisfaction can plummet, relationships with co-workers can be impacted, and the overall company culture can be affected.

Did You Know?

In some situations, remote workers are more productive than those in an office. If an employee is a suitable candidate for remote work and it works for your business, consider implementing some remote work options. Review our list of the best employee monitoring software to ensure you can support your workforce working remotely.

Recognizing distracted behavior and taking action

When you understand the ramifications of distracted employees, you can implement policies and procedures to help alleviate the problem. Some employers have implemented company policies such as these:

  • Blocking certain websites
  • Banning personal calls and cell phone use
  • Setting lunch and break times
  • Monitoring email and internet use
  • Limiting meetings
  • Adopting an open-space layout instead of cubicles
  • Allowing employees to telecommute on certain days of the workweek

Employers don’t have to take drastic measures, though. Encouraging employees to take a short break can be effective. “One of the best ways to cultivate a culture of productivity in your office is for employees to take regular breaks,” Haefner said. “Taking breaks from work throughout the day can actually be good for productivity, enabling the mind to take a break from the job at hand and re-energize you. The trick is finding the right [work-appropriate] activities that promote – rather than deplete – energy.”

Employer tips for boosting productivity

In the CareerBuilder release, Haefner offered a few tips for employers to create a workplace that will boost productivity:

  • Schedule breaks. Encourage employees to take breaks during the day, but make sure they set a definite ending time. This not only gives them something to look forward to, but it also lets them know when it’s time to get back to work.
  • Work near productive people. Productivity can be contagious. Seeing how co-workers stay productive can be an inspiration to others.
  • Be publicly accountable. If employees can’t seem to get motivated, try having them post their goals for the day on social media. Making themselves publicly accountable will help push them to get their work finished.
  • Take a walk. If workers are having trouble concentrating, have them step outside for a 10- or 20-minute walk. Previous research has shown that light exercise can rejuvenate the brain.

Chad Brooks contributed to the writing and research in this article.

Image Credit: Antonio_Diaz / Getty Images
Brandi Calero-Holmes
Brandi Calero-Holmes
Contributing Writer
Brandi Calero-Holmes has been a freelance writer for roughly 3 years creating content for small businesses, digital publications, and professionals internationally while residing in Newport News, Virginia. Her 8 years of career experience in finance and business include insurance and consumer lending. In 2018, Calero-Holmes has written extensively on business and finance topics for numerous brands and digital publications.