With the rise of cheap labor, there’s a major struggle to keep it. Performance is examined regularly, sometimes, almost daily, it seems which raises the stress levels of the average worker. Any instant we’re not doing our job feels like we’re either stealing from the company or we’re not measuring up to the standards. And your boss wonders why you seem edgy and nervous. Workplace distractions have at least something to do with that.
Breaks vs. Distractions
You should pull yourself away now and then. Breaks are one thing; distractions are another. Breaks are focused and deliberate. Distractions catch you off guard and derail your work rhythm entirely.
Distractions can cause errors. Trainers in every aspect of employment can’t emphasize enough how vital it is to “pay attention” to what you are doing, whether it is driving a bus or answering a phone call. Concentration is essential if one is to be a valuable employee.
Nothing is more intimidating than believing you’ve done something wrong. Where is that math error? The pressure mounts every minute. Distraction at the office didn’t start with the technological revolution (remember the water cooler or the coffee pot?). As screens on your desk multiply and managers push frazzled workers to do more with less, companies say the problem is aggravating. There’s bound to be an influence on the company’s bottom line.
The Affects of Distraction
Even after you’ve eliminated the disruption, you’re not working at the same level you were before. In a study from the University of California Irvine, researchers shadowed workers on the job, studying their productivity. Here’s what study lead Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction, said of the findings:
“You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were…We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news — it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”
“It is an epidemic,” says Lacy Roberson, a director of learning and organizational development at eBay Inc. At most companies, it’s a struggle “to get work done on a daily basis, with all these things coming at you,” she says.
Is It Really That Bad?
Office workers’ concentration is broken —or self-interrupted—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms.
Considering their findings, those seemingly small interruptions can really add up throughout the day. Ms. Mark does point out that this depends on the type of interruption, though:
“If an interruption matches the topic of the current task at hand, then it’s beneficial. If you’re working on task A and somebody comes in and interrupts you about exactly that task people report that’s very positive and helps them think about task A.”
If interruptions are short they’re usually not so bad. Imagine you’re working on this article and some one comes in and says, “Here, can you sign this form?” You sign it, it’s a very subordinate kind of task and you go back to doing your work. An automatic task not needing a lot of thinking would not be a major disruption.
But let’s say you’re writing that article, and you stop to chat with a coworker about the latest episode of True Detective. That’s a lasting, unrelated interruption that can take some time to recover from.
Taking Aim at Email
Some business are taking steps to keep workers focused. They are limiting internal email. One firm has banned them entirely. Others are reducing the number of projects handled at the same time. The negatives of multi-tasking appear decidedly outweigh the positives of having many tasks completed.
Last year, Jamey Jacobs, a divisional vice president at Abbott Vascular, a unit of health-care company Abbott Laboratories, discovered his 200 employees developed significant anxiety trying to squeeze in more heads-down, focused work amid the daily thrum of email and meetings.
“It became personally frustrating that they were not getting the things they wanted to get done,” he says. While at meetings, staff checked email, worked at chores on laptops and tablets. Concentration on the purpose of the conference was destroyed. Part of the solution for Mr. Jacobs’s team was that oft-forgotten piece of office technology: the telephone.
Mr. Jacobs and productivity consultant Daniel Markovitz found workers communicated almost entirely over email, whether the matter was mundane (such as cake in the break room) or urgent (like an equipment issue). They decreed that workers let the significance and complexity of their message suggest the use cellphones, office phones or email.
Only pressing communication and complex issues deserved phone calls or in-person conversations. Electronic mail was to be used for reserved for subject matter that could wait. Abbott Laboratories workers now pick up the phone more and send fewer internal emails. There is greater clarity on what’s urgent and what’s not. Mr. Jacobs says the new emphasis doesn’t relieve the responsibility to stay current with emails from clients or co-workers outside the group.
Ms. Roberson of eBay recently instituted a no-device policy during some team meetings, a change that she says has made gatherings more efficient.
Not All Workplace Distractions Harm Productivity
Dr. Mark found people work aggressively when they expect disruptions, squeezing tasks into shorter intervals of time. Workers’ accuracy suffered little amid frequent interruptions, but stress rose significantly. The payoff of which is most vital is a decision to be made by management.
Other studies have found that occasional, undemanding distractions, such as surfing the Web, can help increase creativity and reduce workplace monotony, which may help boost alertness. Again, it’s healthy and productive to occasionally walk away from your work and take breaks. It recharges you. But you want to stay focused when you are working.
At Intel Corp.’s 14,000-person Software and Services group, workers complained they weren’t getting time to ponder problems because they spent much of their time keeping up with day-to-day tasks. So earlier this fall, managers decided to pilot a program allowing employees to set aside several hours a week for heads-down work.
During four weekly hours of “think time”—tracked via group calendar and spreadsheet—workers aren’t expected to respond to emails or attend meetings. The only exception would be if they’re working on collaborative projects or the need was urgent. Already, at least one employee has developed a patent application in those hours, while others have caught up on the work they’re unable to get to during frenetic workdays, says Linda April, a manager in the group.
A Technological Solution?
Software firms have expended much energy in creating email sorting and filtering programs and other means of increasing productive workers. None have been declared effective unless there has been substantial corporate support. Authorities agree that unless employees know for certain management intends to underpin what those in the trenches are doing, no program will work.
Perhaps no company has taken on the email problem with as much relish as Atos, a global IT services company based outside of Paris, with 74,000 employees. After an internal study found that individuals spent some two hours a day managing their inboxes, the company vowed to phase out internal email entirely.
Workers continue to email outside customers, but workers to interact with co-workers via an internal social network the company began installing earlier this fall, says Robert Shaw, global program director for the “Zero Email” initiative.
Atos says it’s too early to say if this change is successful, but in an anti-email manifesto posted on the company’s website, CEO Thierry Breton claims his company’s efforts to cut down electronic clutter is like “measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.” It appears to be similar to locking the barn door after the horse has left.
Office Workers Aren’t the Only Ones Struggling to Stay On-task
At Robins Air Force Base, in Georgia, fewer than half of planes were being repaired on time by the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex because employees were working on too many planes at once and toggling between too many tasks on each. The base worked with Realization, a San Jose, Calif., project-management consulting and software firm, to reduce the number of aircraft in the maintenance docks.
Fewer projects led to better effectiveness and more on-time results. A year after changing workflow, 97% of the aircraft are now repaired on time, says Doug Keene, vice director of the air-logistics complex.’
Businesses have praised workers for multitasking, “but that isn’t necessarily a good thing,” says Mr. Keene. “When you are focused on just a few things, you tend to solve problems faster. You can’t disguise the problem by looking like you’re really busy”.
How does your workplace handle distractions? Is there tighter control on personal phone calls and email in an effort to increase accuracy and performance? Have you personally experienced stress because of the pressure to “get ‛er done,” as Larry the Cable Guy says?