October 15, 2018

Distractedness Is Quickly Becoming The Organization’s Top Issue

“Sorry for being late,” said the client as she entered the conference call. “I had to drive home to take the call. It was way too noisy for a Thursday.”

Earlier that week I waltzed up to the outdoor concierge area of a hotel I was staying at. I needed my luggage and a taxi to head to the airport and the ensuing flight back home.

I approached the young man behind the desk. “Hey mate,” I said, “it’s time for me to depart.”

“Of course, sir,” he replied with remarkable cheeriness. “Give me your luggage ticket, and I’ll fetch it from the locker. Do you need a cab?”

I said yes, and he moseyed off. The locker was to my left, roughly 50 feet away. He opened the door, where I could see him easily procure my bag within seconds. Unbeknownst to him, I could see everything he was doing. He then proceeded to spend roughly two minutes flipping through a mobile phone that was charging against the wall.

When the scrolling ceased, he strolled back to where I was standing, oblivious to my friendly espionage.

“Alright sir, let’s hail you that cab.”

While unrelated, each of these situations is an example of workplace distractedness. It’s a growing concern of mine. It should be a concern of yours, too.

The open office concept has resulted in both positive and negative effects. On the positive side—for those that enjoy it—open offices create a buzz not found in closed office environments. That “buzz” might be a more collaborative arena in which to brainstorm, make decisions, or to get things done. The palpable energy is something many people feed off of, helping them to be more engaged in their work.

On the other hand, the open office is not for everyone. It can be quite stressful for those who require relative peace and serenity in which to accomplish their tasks, be it writing, thinking, assessing, creating, or in the case of my client, conducting a conference call.

The less-than-favorable view of the open office is another example of workplace distractedness. If an employee feels as though they cannot adequately perform in their role due to factors such as noise, commotion, interruptions, or even lighting, you can be assured that their levels of engagement and productivity will be less than stellar.

Similarly, leaders ought to appreciate the appropriate use of technology, notably the constant barrage of notifications and attention requests on employees.

In my cheeky example with the hotel concierge, one might argue that it was only a two-minute delay in my day. Indeed, it was only two minutes. But what is my impression of the hotel chain, and of this employee now?

Think about any customer-facing interaction. If employees feel compelled to answer every request or notification that comes their way on a device—be it a laptop, mobile phone, tablet, and so on—what does that say about that organization’s ability to focus and to serve the customer?

When an employee’s attention span is unable to be kept on task—like retrieving luggage—it begs the question of how productive they are across all of their objectives. If employees are distracted by small hits of dopamine—checking for texts, emails, requests from the boss, or likes on their most recent Instagram post—it is not only the output and productivity I am concerned about for that employee, it is the reputation of the organization itself.

What to do?

There are a few easy wins you might want to consider.

First, involve your Learning and Development department to design a program explicitly focused on “distraction training.” It’s my opinion that many employees do not even know how distracted they have become. The training itself ought to include the difference between a focused employee and an unfocused one. For example, detail the positive effects of shutting down all laptop and mobile phone notifications to be more focused. (If you do not possess such a department, outsource it to a willing contractor or external training firm.)

Second, if your organization has already shifted to an open office environment, create private, quiet spaces for people to work in. At my place of work, TELUS, we created just that with “telephone rooms” in which team members can book them to take a call or to focus on their work without distractions. We also implemented “walking rooms” where you can take your laptop in and stroll on a treadmill while thinking, writing, or even chatting on the phone. Both are examples of providing a distraction, noise-free option.

And finally, consider the introduction of “team norms.” While working with your team, establish rules and guidelines on how your team will interact and collaborate with one another. Perhaps there is a no-meeting Friday rule. Maybe everyone gets to “think” or “dream” for three hours every week. Or what if everyone was able to work from home once or twice per week. Whatever the case, having this open discussion with the team under the banner of “team norms” might help weed out the distractions.

And speaking of weeds, distractedness is quickly becoming the ultimate killer weed that is popping up more and more in our organizations.

It is the role of leaders to help find ways in which to prevent it from spreading and causing more damage than it has already done.

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