Addressing Digital Distractions to Focus on Work
By Caitlynn Sendra, Ph.D., and Lin Grensing-Pophal
Most of us know the familiar glow of multiple applications that require our attention each day at work. The stream never stops. E-mails demand a response. Instant messages on platforms such as Slack ping and blink with the expectation of quick replies to informative messages. Then there's social media, where users are constantly inundated with distracting memes, newsy bits, images and videos – all of which have potentially negative implications for workers’ productivity and mental health.
The problem employees face “is that distractions can interfere with the capacity to focus and dedicate the attention needed for the work that we’re doing,” says Shanique G. Brown, assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Wayne State University, whose research focuses on cognition in the workplace.
Brown says that the constant shifts in our attention from one application to another and one screen to another relies on an individual’s working memory capacity, which allows us to preserve bits of information when we’re working on a single task. These “switching costs” sap our strength to think – to process information that we need to do our jobs well.
“If I’m reading a document as I sit at my computer and I’m distracted by an e-mail and I shift my attention to go read that e-mail, that task switch could interfere with my ability to easily refocus on reading the document,” Brown says. “If my working memory capacity is low, there’s a greater cost for me to switch back to do the work I was initially doing. The distraction of the e-mail steals some of my mental capacity or resources from my core task.”
Digital distractions plague most of us these days, whether we’re in an office setting or working remotely. In this article, we look at the extent of this problem and its effects on productivity and mental health and how managers, organizational leaders, and employees themselves can recognize and address the risks.
The digital distractions problem
Workers spend a lot of time toggling between apps and websites to do their jobs: Approximately 1,200 times per day, according to one study of 137 users at three Fortune 500 companies, published in 2022 in Harvard Business Review. It amounted to people spending almost four hours per week (or 9% of their work time) resetting their concentration back to their relevant tasks.
If my working memory capacity is low, there’s a greater cost for me to switch back to do the work I was initially doing. The distraction of the e-mail steals some of my mental capacity or resources from my core task.
— Shanique G. Brown, assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Wayne State University.
There are different types of distractions, according to Philip Beaman, a University of Reading psychology professor.
Internal distractions can include a person’s urges, such as to check e-mails or voice messages, surf the Internet, or to respond to prompts that pop up on a computer screen. An individual’s personality – the extent to which we’re drawn to engage with off-task stimuli – influences the intensity of an internal distraction.
External distractions can include office noises, like coworkers’ conversations, ringing telephones, and equipment or mechanical sounds, and audible and visual alerts from the individual’s electronic devices.
Environmental distractions involve situations where workspaces are too hot or too cold or where workers are dealing with glare, making it hard for them to see their screens.
These interruptions exist in both traditional workplace settings and, since the pandemic emerged, in employees’ home settings where many continue to work. Despite reports of increased productivity when working from home, there are still distractions to be addressed. Distractions are different at home than in the physical work setting, for example, a child asking for homework help instead of a colleague seeking a project update.
All of these distractions prevent employees from focusing on their work, leading to decreased productivity, stress, and burnout.
In spite of being surrounded by signals that can sidetrack us, there are strategies everyone can use to stay focused on important tasks. Employers can take steps to minimize distractions that involve technology, as well as training and communication to help employees develop better habits. With many organizations implementing return-to-work plans, now is a good time to consider adopting some of these fixes.
Provide spaces for individual concentration – even in offices with open floor plans
Open-plan offices are like the tides at the beach: they make digital distractions come at us in waves. Open offices subject employees to their neighbors’ sounds and activities in addition to their own – the beeps, rings, and buzzes of others’ devices as well as the sounds and conversations that ensue.
In a 2021 study of the effect of open-plan office spaces on employees, published in the Journal of Management & Organization, researchers from Bond University in Australia compared open-office experiences to quieter private office settings and found that open-office settings, while not having an immediate effect on work performance, did lead to stress and negative effects on psychological wellbeing as reported by study participants.
If an employee thinks the boss expects them to instantly reply to messages, they’ll be more likely to compulsively check them.
– Jon Hill, CEO and chairman of The Energists, an executive search and recruiting firm.
While the researchers acknowledge that open-plan office settings aren’t likely to be eliminated any time soon, they suggest that there are some steps organizations can take to make them less distracting. The ability to work from home is one. In traditional office settings, they recommend installing partitions or walls between workspaces and using “acoustic treatments and sound-masking techniques” to muffle noises from nearby colleagues.
Jon Hill, CEO and chairman of The Energists, an executive search and recruiting firm, says that even in an open setting, there are ways for employees to create a self-contained space and signal to workers that they are trying to focus. For instance, Hill says: “if you don’t have office or cubicle spaces, you can buy a few desk guards for employees to use when they need a distraction-free space, or buy a few sets of noise-canceling headphones for employees to wear when they need them.”
Some organizations have also set up spaces such as conference rooms and cubicles for employees to work quietly.
Establish no-notification times
Establishing rules of engagement can help employees disengage from devices in culturally acceptable ways. For instance, allowing employees to block off their calendars or to turn off notifications.
To minimize the tendency for workers, especially those working in remote or hybrid settings, to engage with work-related e-mails and other technology after work hours, some policymakers are codifying a right to disconnect that allows workers to log off from work and not receive or respond to work-related e-mails, calls, or messages outside of regular hours. In Belgium, for instance, government workers are not required to answer their managers’ e-mails after hours, NPR reported. The Ontario government in Canada has taken similar action. France adopted such a law in 2017, as did both Ireland and Portugal in 2021.
“One of the most helpful strategies companies and teams can adopt to manage distractions is to align on a set of working norms around communication,” says Lia Garvin, an organizational effectiveness consultant and executive coach, and the author of the book Unstuck.
Garvin says this set of norms should include agreeing when people should send e-mails, engage in online chats and Slack messages, and schedule meetings. Examples that she has seen work well include:
- Setting aside “deep work time,” when the team commits to not scheduling meetings and people are encouraged to turn off notifications to chats and e-mails.
- Blocking off meeting-free days. Having a full day each week, or potentially a week each quarter, without meetings. This gives people permission to focus on work without feeling like they have to be bouncing from one time commitment to the next.
- Keep communications to office hours. Encouraging a culture of not e-mailing or sending chat messages outside of business hours means people can turn off notifications and feel confident that they won’t miss anything.
If such policies are not in place where you do business, leaders and managers can support their teams by, first, maintaining open communications about the level of distractions they face during and outside of work hours and, second, offering support and tips for minimizing their negative effects.
Help managers lead by example
While companies can create policies to regulate the use of digital devices or actively encourage employees to choose healthy practices that help them concentrate, Bill Catlette, an executive coach and partner at Contented Cow Partners, an executive coaching firm, argues that leaders can demonstrate positive behaviors.
“I am firmly convinced that moving the needle on some of these habits is better accomplished through the power of personal example than by lecture,” Catlette says.
The techniques he uses when working with executive clients include:
- Being obvious about turning off and putting his phone away at the beginning of a session. All other devices remain silent and out of reach. This, he says, sends a “solid signal that they are the most important thing in my life at that moment.”
- Limiting computer views to one window. When working virtually, Catlette says, he closes all but the active window on his monitor. “Barring an exigent emergency, I ask and expect [colleagues and clients] to do the same,” he says. That keeps his eyes clearly focused on those in a meeting rather than flitting around the screen.
Hill, the executive search company chairman, says that leading by example also means being cognizant of the demands one places on employees’ responsiveness. “If an employee thinks the boss expects them to instantly reply to messages, they’ll be more likely to compulsively check them,” Hill says.
Instead, he suggests that leaders “make it clear to your team members that you don’t expect them to interrupt other work to answer your messages. Then back that up by giving them at least a few hours of leeway before you follow up or nudge them for a reply.”
Hill says he also believes in taking brief work breaks – and encouraging his team members to do the same. “A quick, five-minute break every hour or so can actually help you to concentrate better and focus on tasks longer,” he says. “I like to set reminders with my phone that remind me to stand up and stretch.”
Enlist employees as partners, not adversaries, in the process
Finally, avoid setting up a punitive environment where employees risk feeling as if they are viewed as nonproductive slackers if they fail to pay attention to every screen alert. Approach the process of minimizing digital distractions as a joint project designed to help employees be productive and free from stress that can lead to burnout.
It’s critical, Garvin says, “to frame the conversation around removing distractions as one of support and helping people feel less overwhelmed, as opposed to one of distrust that people aren’t working hard enough or are distracted with social media or personal tasks.” When that’s the case, she says, these situations are best handled individually. “People focus intently on their work when they feel like it matters and their organization trusts them and wants them to be successful.”
While managers and their teams work to reduce the frequent interruptions from their computing devices, experts say leaders should be cautious about applying productivity-tracking or distraction-blocking tools to the issue of digital distraction.
While it’s understandable that some companies would want to deploy such technology, especially in remote or hybrid environments, such software “is a result of productivity paranoia and is ultimately detrimental to teams,” writes Aytekin Tank, a technology executive, in an article in Fast Company.
These tools, Tank argues, destroy employees’ feelings of autonomy and damage morale. There’s evidence to back the argument. Researchers studying call center work environments found a correlation between extensive employee monitoring and worker stress, a 2020 study notes.
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