A Distracted Workplace
Costs Far More Than
Productivity Loss

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Distracted workers contribute to much more than simply a loss of productivity. Here’s how to fight back.

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By Brad Killinger


ccording to a survey conducted by Udemy Research — aptly named “2018 Workplace Distraction Report” — nearly 3 out of 4 workers (70 percent) say they feel distracted at work. As organizations place an ever-increasing focus on adopting new technologies to aid collaboration toward a more responsive, real-time business, we’re now on full-tilt communication overload.

A few years ago, research showed the average employee received 304 business-related emails weekly, took around 16 minutes to refocus attention after handling incoming email and checked email 36 times an hour. The same survey found the average employee lost 31 hours a month in meetings and was disrupted around 56 times a day, taking two hours daily to recover from these disruptions. Recent studies show the situation is only growing worse.

While the move from a manufacturing economy to the knowledge economy has been well-documented and well understood, approaches to improving productivity in the knowledge economy have some catching up to do.

Today, corporate success hinges on intellectual capability, and productivity is dependent on cultivating employee cognition — helping facilitate employees’ ability to synthesize information, to create and to innovate. To this end, employers must provide an employee experience that facilitates focused work emphasizing attention management.

Given the significant investment organizations make in the workforce, reallocating employee efforts to focus on meaningful work and devising strategies to diffuse the distracted workplace is quintessential.

Distracted Workplace Equals Disastrous Outcomes

Incredibly, upward of 40 percent of an employee’s actual workday is spent on nonproductive efforts, costing companies millions in lost productivity. The distracted workplace contributes to a vicious cycle ending in employee dissatisfaction. Distractions lead to productivity loss, which leads to a longer workday, which leads to frustration and stress, which leads to a lack of engagement and motivation and eventually attrition. The previously cited Udemy survey revealed 34 percent of employees like their jobs less when in a distracting workplace.

study done by University of California at Irvine showed that people compensate for interruptions by working faster, and then experience more stress, pressure and higher levels of frustration. In addition to negatively impacting employees emotionally, businesses are also negatively impacted since even the briefest interruption can double a worker’s error rate.

A growing body of research is showing that workplace distractions even degrade employee IQ scores. Case in point: constantly fielding email has the same deleterious effect on performance as missing an entire night’s sleep.

Taking Control of Productivity and Performance

To optimize human performance in this massively distracting work environment, “management by walking around” is being replaced by more sophisticated means of performance management known as people analytics.

Today’s tools of the trade for knowledge workers are computers — work stations, PCs and mobile devices — and business systems such as customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning systems, as well as Microsoft Office applications. Through people analytics, the digital output of individuals and work groups is measured and analyzed to understand productivity trends and traps. Sophisticated software automates the collection of the digital signals that an employee emits and combines them with powerful analytics so that senior executives can make better decisions around what for many businesses is their largest investment: their workforce.

The harsh reality is most companies are only realizing 60 percent productivity of workforce capacity. People analytics offers to find the sources of productivity loss to inform and guide strategies to close this gap.

After working with companies worldwide and analyzing more than 500,000 hours of work data, best practices and strategies for winning the war against the distracted workplace emerge, including a concept called the golden hour.

For the uninitiated, the golden hour can seem quite radical; for one hour, companies create a focused work environment devoid of distractions.

Shining Through Golden Hours

The basic concept behind the golden hour is to remove distractions to provide an environment that encourages productivity by enabling employees to manage their attention and harness their focus. While collaboration is key to business success, it can also be counterproductive. The golden hour encourages a distraction-free environment to enable employees to function on their own and practice focused work.

For the uninitiated, the golden hour can seem quite radical; for one hour, companies create a focused work environment devoid of distractions by asking employees to block apps, chat and notifications; curtail phone usage; avoid email; put the kibosh on meetings and deny outside visitor access. We encourage companies to designate a certain time of day to observe this golden hour (or hours).

Following a successful implementation, employees should begin to feel more productive at work because the uninterrupted quality, focused work time enables them to double down efforts on core projects and get more work done. People analytics data can help organization identify optimal placement of golden hours, based on the natural rhythm of the team or teams.

Implementing strategies such as the golden hour, informed by people analytics data, can improve workforce utilization by one hour a day per employee. For a company with more than 5,000 employees, this can add $400 million annually to the bottom line.

While employees can sometimes be skeptical, they invariably come to embrace the golden hour as they take pride in their increased achievements, minimized stress and newfound peace of mind as well as the added benefit of more time for family or leisure. Providing a distraction-free work environment isn’t just a business performance management strategy; it’s a savvy strategy to support employee wellness, work-life balance, employee engagement and retention.

Brad Killinger is the CEO of Sapience Analytics, a vendor of people analytics solutions helping companies use employee time more efficiently. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.