How Distractions in the Workplace Affect Productivity

One of the biggest and most long standing challenges facing employers is how to optimize worker productivity in the workplace. Given recent, highly publicized surveys that reveal only a small percentage of employees are fully engaged at work, employers are right to be concerned. In this age of limitless digital distractions, piled on top of traditional workplace distractions, it’s easy to understand how workers have trouble staying focused and on task. The question is: what can employers do to help their employees manage distractions? We offer some analysis and possible solutions.

Common Workplace Distractions

Busy workplaces offer a plethora of possible distractions to even the most engaged and diligent office workers. These distractions generally relate to three different workplace dimensions: physical workspace, time management, and colleague dynamics:

  • General office noise (ringing phones, conversations, visitors, etc.)
  • Chatty co-workers
  • Micromanaging bosses
  • Open seating plans
  • Meetings and collaboration
  • Objectionable physical environment: uncomfortable office furniture, poor air quality, lack of light, too cold or too hot
  • Work-related emails and group chats
  • Office internet and smartphones as avenues for personal pursuits

Depending on the workplace situation and the individuals involved, some distractions can be more disruptive and stressful than others. For example, if the company is being restructured due to management changes or corporate acquisition, the ensuing ‘global’ uncertainty about the future will be hugely distracting. In this case, the only thing management can do is to be as transparent as possible with workers. On the other hand, some sources of distractions can be dealt with relatively easily, as we discuss below.

Office Physical Workspace Improvements

Employers must try to address various sources of distraction to the extent possible, starting with relatively easy physical plant solutions. Lighting can be improved, and temperamental HVAC systems fixed or upgraded. If appropriate, fans and heaters can be distributed to those complaining about heat or cold.

Open seating plans, originally conceived to foster collaboration while saving money—which were all the rage not so long ago—have mixed reviews these days. Various recent studies report that their drawbacks, mostly related to noise and lack of privacy, outweigh their benefits.

While it may be prohibitively expensive and otherwise unrealistic for an employer to turn an open seating area into individual offices, an open plan can be modified to mitigate noise and visual distractions. The introduction of sound-absorbing furniture and decor, including house plants (adapted to office light conditions) that can also cleanse the air, will help. Noise machines can be utilized to muffle conversation and other sounds. Consider adding high cubicle walls or some other kind of privacy screening. If possible, make separate office space available for meetings and/or quiet time.

Time Management Techniques

Barraged with a constant onslaught of emails, texts, pings and group chats endemic to most workplaces these days, it can be hard for even the most disciplined worker to give their full focus to pressing assignments. In addition, many employees’ days are filled with back-to-back meetings that leave very little time for execution of their duties.

Employers can coach staff on tactics to ensure that virtual and in-person communications and meetings don’t torpedo their productivity. For example, it may be helpful to set aside designated times for checking email, etc., and to turn off notifications so they’re not a constant source of interruptions throughout the day.

In addition, meetings should be streamlined with only need-to-know participants, strict agendas, and time limits so they become less of a timesink. Some managers insist on standing meetings to impart a sense of urgency.

Limiting or otherwise controlling employees’ time spent dealing with personal issues, whether on the phone or online, is a challenge. It’s counterproductive to institute strict workplace rules governing the use of phones or the internet for personal use, regardless of whether the employees are using their own smartphones.

Instead, it’s helpful for managers to learn as much as they can about their team members and have an open, ongoing dialogue about their personal interests and pressing outside issues that might affect their focus at work. A little understanding and compassion can go a long way toward nurturing employee loyalty and engagement, a natural result of which is they’ll be less-inclined to waste time at work on personal issues.

Dealing With Distracting Colleagues

In any workplace, there are bound to be some challenging personalities who can be disruptive and also harm morale. Overly-controlling managers, for example, have a negative effect on employee productivity, according to various studies. This is because, intrinsically, people value ‘freedom and autonomy’ and react badly when infringed upon.¹  In addition, a micro-manager is likely to be a steady source of interruptions for team members. Department managers and supervisors must be chosen carefully and trained to empower their team members.

Chatty co-workers can also be a workplace distraction, especially if they engage in office gossip and politics. Curbing this behavior can be a challenge, especially since some people just like to talk. And, workplace socializing can actually be a good thing, fostering collegiality and teamwork. Management can try to mitigate problematic behavior by ensuring the chatters are fully engaged with challenging work with deadlines. In addition, co-workers can be encouraged to gently rebuff the chatters, either overtly or by donning headphones, signaling their need to focus on work.

With the rise of digital technology, there are more distractions than ever in the workplace which can make for a stressful environment which reduces worker productivity. HR and senior management must take a close look at the office dynamics and make necessary adjustments.

Contact LINK for more guidance on how to minimize distractions in the workplace and improve productivity.

1. Gallo, Amy. “Stop Being Micromanaged.” Harvard Business Review. 22 Sept. 2011