Co-authored by Jason McCarley, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Oregon State University.
Your organization is distracted. Research suggests that knowledge workers lose 2-3 hours per workday to distractions, and yes, this lack of focus is expensive. Workforce distraction has been estimated to cost organizations 14-to-15 times more than health-related absenteeism.
Distractions take different forms, some obvious and some insidious. External distractions are the obvious ones, everything from email push notifications to smartphone alerts to interruptions from coworkers in the office and pets and children when working from home. Internal distractions—thoughts and emotions that derail our focus—are less conspicuous but can be just as powerful.
Any executive knows that one of their primary responsibilities is to align the resources of the organization—in this case, the attention of their employees—to their quarterly and annual goals. Here are three things you can do to help your team members spend their attention more productively:
1. Make communication a tool, not the whole job. Email is an insatiable beast. According to McKinsey, we spend 28 percent of our work time on email, checking it 11 times per hour, while 84 percent of us keep email open in the background while working. Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California-Irvine found that the more time employees spent on email, the less productive and the more stressed they felt.
Face-to-face communication is 34 percent more effective than email in getting people to take action. Given our post-pandemic reliance on video conferencing, a short video call can eliminate multiple email volleys between employees.
Email “quiet periods” are difficult to mandate and enforce but they can be effective in lowering employees’ reliance on their inboxes. Those quiet periods can be individualized, allowing workers to block out time as they wish to address email, or they can be department- or organization-wide.
And if you want your employees to spend less time staring at their inboxes all day, then advise senior staff to send email sparingly. Modeling good behavior is a big step in helping focus your organization.
2. Rethink your workplace environment. The open-plan office was intended to remove barriers to collaboration and supercharge team creativity. It backfired catastrophically. Studies have suggested that in companies that went to open office plans, face-to-face communication shrank by 70 percent, and worker satisfaction declined.
Part of the problem seems obvious: With no walls to separate them, workers are surrounded by chatter and office noise. Even at a low intensity, background speech is difficult to ignore. Cognitive scientists have found that speech has a privileged, direct pipeline to incidental listeners’ working memory, where it interferes with ongoing mental processes.
And the effort of trying to tune out background chatter itself causes stress.
More surprisingly, the effects of open space also work in the other direction: Workers aren’t just exhausted by trying to tune out the chatter in the background but by the stress of keeping their own conversations and activities private.
Noise-masking headphones and acoustic office redesign are only partial solutions. They reduce but don’t eliminate distracting noise, and they don’t restore privacy. To be most productive, workers should have access to quiet, private space when they need it.
3. Eliminate toxicity to eliminate distraction. We know the long-term importance of a respectful work environment to morale and retention as the costs of uncivil behavior to worker creativity and productivity can be immediate and acute. Workers who experience rude or disrespectful treatment—or who simply witness someone else being treated poorly—find it difficult to concentrate on anything else. (Think of how hard it is to shake thoughts of the guy who made a rude gesture and cut you off in traffic this morning.)
Dwelling on incivility bumps other thoughts from working memory, blocking us from staying focused on the things we need to get done. The result is a drop in short-term memory capacity, a loss of creativity, a spike in performance errors, and a compromise of decision-making and planning.
An emotionally healthy work environment is about employee productivity just as much as it is about retention.
Putting It All Together
You have a sick leave policy. But if employee distraction is costing you more than employee sick time, shouldn’t you also consider a policy to help your workforce manage their attention? Bring together employees in a vertical working group to identify the top distractions and develop a blueprint to combat them.
Creating an environment that fosters open dialogue regarding distraction, and empowers employees to be proactive in focusing their attention, is critical. Your employees' attention, not just their presence, is your organization's most valuable resource.
Bialowolski, P., McNeely, E., VanderWeele, T. J., & Weziak-Bialowolska, D. (2020). Ill health and distraction at work: Costs and drivers for productivity loss. PLOS ONE, 15(3), e0230562. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0230562
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Kropman, D., Appel-Meulenbroek, R., Bergefurt, L., & LeBlanc, P. (2022). The business case for a healthy office; a holistic overview of relations between office workspace design and mental health. Ergonomics, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140139.2022.2108905
Porath, C. L., Foulk, T., & Erez, A. (2015). How incivility hijacks performance. Organizational Dynamics