When Work Feels Chaotic, Take Back Your Power With Learning

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The modern workplace can give even the most laid-back person a case of sensory overload. At any given time, emails arrive, notifications flash, devices buzz, coworkers chit-chat, and meeting reminders pop up. It’s no wonder 70 percent of respondents to the “Udemy In Depth: 2018 Workplace Distraction Report”  said they’re distracted.

The steady stream of distractions is making people stressed, unmotivated, and frustrated. No mere annoyance, workplace distractions undermine confidence and performance, especially among younger employees.

Workplace distraction has real consequences for employers, too. In addition to lost productivity, lower engagement, and lower retention, distractions interfere with the next generation’s preparedness for future leadership roles. Twenty-two percent of millennials and Gen. Z workers don’t feel they’re able to reach their potential, and 34 percent say they like their jobs less as a result of distractions.

Many millennials are already in management, but they haven’t necessarily received training on what it takes to be a great manager — i.e., soft skills like leadership, team-building, and giving constructive feedback. Our research found that 69 percent of millennials spend two hours or more looking at their phones for personal activities during the workday, which makes it that much harder for them to develop those critical leadership skills and stay tuned into their teams’ needs.

Across all age groups, 59 percent of workers agree that personal use of technology is more distracting than work tools.

We’re all new to this balancing act, manically responding to pings, notifications, and interruptions while trying desperately to carve out time for deep, focused work. According to our research, 70 percent of workers think training could help them cope with distractions, but 66 percent have never spoken to a manager about it. It is possible, based on my experience, they’re afraid of looking like they’re having trouble doing their jobs or are less capable than their peers.

Asking for learning and development opportunities should be viewed as a good thing: a signal an employee wants to keep getting better at their job. At a time of continuous, disruptive workplace transformation, companies that attract and support avid upskillers will have a competitive edge. Besides, with a measurable gap between skills employees need and skills job candidates have, it makes a lot more sense to upskill the talent you already have than to get stuck in a costly cycle of constantly recruiting for new skills.
Individuals can still grow and advance in their careers in uncertain times. Employers would be wise to support them along the way, lest those proactive upskillers take their talents to a different company, one that prioritizes learning and development.

Never Stop Learning

When people embrace lifelong learning, assimilating new skills isn’t a source of fear or stress — it’s just another part of the career journey. Tech workers have long been accustomed to continuous upskilling as programming languages evolve and new software versions launch, but that cycle is accelerating. Staying current in a particular language or framework isn’t enough for techies, and a narrow focus won’t be enough for workers in other disciplines either.

Learning shouldn’t be limited to those hard skills, though. Even as automation and artificial intelligence expand their impact, soft skills — like communication, leadership, and team-building — won’t be easily replicated by machines.

The good news, even if you weren’t a fan of traditional schooling, is that learning can now happen on your schedule and on your terms. For example, affordable options exist for on-demand online courses you can take at your own pace, whenever, wherever, and however you choose.

Explore Outside Your Function

I also suggest people get curious and stretch in different directions, and that employers empower their workers to do so. People don’t expect to stay in the same role indefinitely, and career paths aren’t linear anymore either. Being open to people moving between teams and functions lets employers accomplish two cost-saving measures at once: retaining the institutional knowledge of longtime employees while leveraging their expertise to generate fresh, innovative ideas.

Pursue a Passion

Another great way to hone your skills, old and new, is to apply them to something real, whether it’s publishing a blog, selling on Etsy, or creating a mobile app. Nonprofits always need volunteers to help with their websites, organize events, or attract new members.

Having a side hustle or passion project is a great showcase for your soft skills, too, as you demonstrate your ability to initiate and follow through on projects, pitch your ideas, collaborate with others, and take ownership.

There’s a quote I like that says, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” This has never been more true than today, when the world of work is moving and changing so fast. Instead of feeling like they can’t think beyond the latest urgent email chain, people can take charge of their careers by embracing learning.

Shelley Osborne is head of learning and development at Udemy.

By Shelley Osborne