The Dos and Don’ts of Employee Distractions

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DaydreamWhat do we make of the word “distraction” nowadays? Employers generally used to accept as fact the belief that they should prevent employees from ever being distracted. Organizations took a cue from the old fast-food industry adage, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean” — that is, they saw not working as time wasted.

Now, however, we’re told that distractions can actually increase productivity in the long-term, and employers are scrambling to find a balance between encouraging collaboration and creativity and giving employees the focus they need to get work done.

How We’re Distracted

Whether distraction is seen as a good or a bad thing, the rate of employee distraction seems to be growing, as is the number of ways in which employees could potentially become distracted. A Bersin by Deloitte infographic highlights some of the ways the modern worker is distracted: they’re on the Internet 27 times per day, up from five in the early days of the web; they unlock their phones up to nine times per hour; in total, only 1 percent of a typical worker’s time is devoted to active training and development. Employees are bombarded by ads, websites, video clips, emails, and other kinds of useless information. These are the downsides of working on a computer with an Internet connection.

As an employer, what should you do?

Do: Let Employees Wander

As mentioned before, studies have shown that distracted employees end up being more productive. Being distracted can even help people solve problems on which they’ve been focusing too hard. The science works like this, according to author Mike Fenske (via Jan Brogan of

“When we focus on a problem, we may be biased toward certain brain signals and suppressing things that we see as unrelated … shampooing hair and lathering up doesn’t take a lot of cognitive focus, [so] other parts of the brain can start to contribute.’’

If you’re looking over an employee’s shoulder and they happen to be on their phone, don’t worry about them at that moment, because they might just be solving a problem. Wait until performance reviews to decide whether or not the employee is really just wasting time.

Don’t: Force the Open Office

The open-office layout has gained a lot of traction in recent years: 70 percent of businesses now work in open-office environments. Many companies use them because they foster more collaboration between employees.

While it’s possible that not needing to go to someone’s office for every minor thing might lead to a faster circulation of ideas, the open office may also lowering productivity. Open offices are a hotbed for distracting noises, like irrelevant conversations and ringing phones. The open office also means more sick days for workers, which further hampers productivity.

The open office can be tempting because it’s cheaper, can fit in smaller spaces, and is widely used, but if your space can’t accommodate one, don’t try to force it on your organization — especially if you’re trying to increase productivity.

Don’t: Give Employees Junk Work

If employees’ personal distractions are like omega-3 fatty acids (the good kind of fat), then employer-based distractions are like saturated and trans fats (the bad kinds). Forty-one percent of employees’ time is spent on unsatisfying work that is distracting and useless, usually in the form of menial tasks that could easily be delegated. But it isn’t just managers giving employees work they shouldn’t be doing — the employees themselves like doing this unnecessary work:

“So why do they keep doing [these tasks]? Because ridding oneself of work is easier said than done. We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we’re willing to accept.” — Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen

At some point, we’re going to have to accept that the modern office worker will never be “working” 100 percent of the time in the workplace. What we can do, however, is realize that some idle time is good for us — and that not everything we consider “work” is worth anyone’s time.

By Suriel Vasquez