HR Insights
September 9, 2019

Four ways managers can increase employee productivity by reducing workplace distractions

With today’s reliance on collaborative tools, open-plan offices, and social media, teams are becoming more distracted than ever. Here’s what managers can do to limit distractions in the modern workplace and increase overall team productivity.

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Workplace distractions are nothing new to the workforce. Employees have long been distracted with chatty coworkers, noisy environments, and sporadic email notifications. However, the world of work is evolving, and our communication styles are changing along with it. Organizations are rolling out new technologies and tools, while breaking down the physical walls of the traditional office, leaving some employees struggling to focus.

As a result, the modern workplace is filled with distracted and frustrated employees who may not be achieving their full potential. According to a recent survey, nearly 70% of workers admit they feel distracted when they’re on the job, with 16% claiming they’re almost always distracted.

A distracted workplace costs more than companies realize

Project management software company, Altassian claims that the top reasons employees are distracted in the workplace today are excessive emails, pointless meetings, and constant interruptions. These distractions may not appear to be a detriment in the short-term but when added up, can account for significant time wasted. The average employee loses 31 hours a month and is disrupted 56 times a day. It can take an employee over 23 minutes to get back to the point they were at before a distraction, and what’s worse, after a 2.8 second interruption, employees doubled their error rates.

Workplace distractions also take a toll on employee well-being. According to the American Psychological Association, employees who are frequently interrupted reported 9% higher exhaustion rates, almost as high as the 12% increase in exhaustion due to work overload.

Susan David, a founder of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital explains that within a team, feelings of anxiety as a result of workplace distraction can be contagious.

It’s therefore vital that managers support their teams’ needs so employees can regain time lost on one-off communications and distracting environments. In doing so, employees can focus on their work and providing long-term value to the company. Here are several ways managers can boost team productivity by helping to limit workplace distractions.

1. Provide training for new technology

New software and devices are being rolled out more frequently, which means they have the potential to be misused. Instead of helping teams collaborate more seamlessly, these tools can lead to “collaboration overload,” where overuse can exceed the intended benefit.

What managers can do: When a new team collaboration tool is rolled out, managers should reinforce the purpose and intention of the new tool and how to use it effectively, with examples.

Related: Five hacks that will boost your productivity today

2. Set communication guidelines

According to McKinsey Global Institute, employees spend more time answering and responding to emails than they do communicating and collaborating with coworkers or searching and gathering information.

What managers can do: To cut back on excessive communication, managers can train their team to have more efficient communication with their colleagues. An example is to encourage employees to “schedule” interruptions and only view and respond to chat messages and emails during pre-defined time blocks. In doing so, employees are freed from the constant interruption of message notifications and can concentrate on their work for extended periods of time.

Secondly, managers can set guidelines to follow when scheduling meetings, for example, providing an agenda and objectives ahead of time, or aiming for half-hour instead of hour-long meetings. Setting expectations during employee onboarding will ensure that all new hires understand the working environment from day one.

3. Provide options and flexibility

Open offices are more common in today’s world of work, as they’re perceived to improve team communication and collaboration. But it’s often reported that open offices don’t actually have the positive impacts they’re perceived to, and an open environment doesn’t suit everyone’s working styles. In fact, 70% of open office workers complain that noise is a distraction from their work.

While an open floor plan might work better for certain roles such as project managers and designers, other roles like writers and developers might not benefit from excessive background noise.

What managers can do: Managers will need to recognize the challenges of an open-plan office and cater to the needs of their employees. Some team members might seek privacy and quiet and others may need greater access to others. Providing an isolated space or allowing employees to work from home will not only help them focus better, but will also make them feel their voices are heard and their needs are being met.

4. Put an emphasis on employee well-being

A study by University of California revealed that people compensate for interruptions by working faster, and then can experience more stress, pressure, and higher levels of frustration.

As distractions are impacting the overall well-being of the workforce, employees are looking to their employer to provide stress relief breaks and time off – but few do so. Nearly 77% of employees want more time off to rest and recharge, and 71% want more frequent breaks to relieve stress but less than half of employers are delivering on these expectations.

What managers can do: Managers can identify busy periods early and plan for them. This will help employees manage their workload and relieve some of the added stress from excessive meetings, email communications, and last minute tasks. Creating a buffer for employees will help them manage their workload when last minute tasks pop up. Consider leveraging technology to help manage employees’ time, for example, using shared documents in the cloud or sending short update emails instead of scheduling meetings.

To help alleviate workplace-related stress from distractions and overload, managers can also promote work-life balance with flexible schedules and frequent break times throughout the day. Allowing for balance and time away from screens will help teams increase focus and ultimately boost productivity.

Related: Four ways to prevent employee burnout

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