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Need to boost productivity? Go to war against workplace distractions

Ever stop to consider just what your employees do all day? If they’re like a lot of today’s workers, they’re fitting in their core work around a host of distractions and interruptions. 

A Harvard Business Review report from March 7, 2016, cites a study showing that the average worker checks email 74 times a day. Add instant messages, phone notifications, chatty coworkers, and noisy open office designs to the mix, and you have a workplace not conducive to work that requires concentration. The distractions workers battle may be necessary, but they take their toll.

Workers cope with the mayhem in a variety of ways. Some wear headphones to block out office sounds, some turn off email notifications, and some seek quiet in an out-of-the-way nook of the office. And some get really creative: The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport tells of a social media pioneer who booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo just to have time in the air free from distraction while writing a book. Most workers can’t take such an extreme step.

Office design one culprit
Not so long ago, open office design, where everyone can see and hear everyone else, was touted as “the great next step,” Brad Federman, chief operating officer for F&H Solutions Group, a human resources consulting firm in Memphis, Tennessee, says. Such design may be great for collaboration, but now the downsides are apparent and some say open office designs are dead.

“The truth lies somewhere in the middle,” Federman says. “In business, the pendulum swings from one direction to the next. Eventually, it will find a middle ground.”

Open offices can make a lot of sense but not for everyone. Also, employers sometimes make mistakes implementing them, Federman says.

  • Mistake 1: Using an open design when it doesn’t fit the workplace culture. Open design works in cultures requiring a lot of collaborative work and where there is little hierarchy and a more flat organization, Federman says. “If you run a traditional organization and you have a significant hierarchy, the more you want to stay away from an open design. It won’t work for you.”
  • Mistake 2: Using an open design that doesn’t match the work. “Open office environments are used for collaboration, interaction, transparency, and more,” Federman says, but not all work is suited for that environment. Privacy and other laws require confidentiality in many situations. “You can’t have people working on those type of issues out in the open, especially if you have customers coming through your office on a regular basis.
  • Mistake 3: Building an open office design to save money. Although open designs reduce costs by requiring less space, they can destroy productivity. “Never engage in an open office design purely for the sake of saving money,” Federman says.
  • Mistake 4: Moving to an open design without recognizing work styles and responsibilities. In deciding how well employees can function in an open design, management needs to consider how long employees have worked in a particular environment and whether they’re managers or employees. “It is very difficult to have private conversations around performance, personnel issues, and other things when you are in an open office environment,” Federman says.

Open office solutions
Even when open office design is done right, employees need ways to deal with distraction. Federman offers some tips:

  • Consider personality preferences when assigning space. “If you have an introverted person sitting next to somebody who is outgoing, extroverted, and likes to talk during the day, this will probably not be a good match,” Federman says.
  • Glass barriers in open space can help block sound and provide a sense of privacy.
  • Provide headsets so people don’t need to use speaker phone.
  • Put in a white noise machine that dampens the other noise in the office.
  • Create meeting and collaboration spaces to allow for privacy and prevent disruptions.
  • Develop a set of norms around behavior and expectations, such as designating certain times of the day for quiet periods when people aren’t to interrupt each other.
  • Provide training on how to deal with distractions and how to stay focused, such as mindfulness training. Deal with any problem employees as performance management issues.

If management decides to use an open design, Federman advises allowing an adjustment period for people who aren’t used to the new surroundings. He says to allow people to express their dissatisfaction but encourage them to offer solutions. “Team people up who have adjusted well with those who are struggling so the well-adjusted folks can role model and mentor those who need to make the adjustment,” he says.

Dealing with technology
Technology can be a distraction no matter what office design is used. Federman has advice for keeping disturbances to a minimum. He suggests having people turn off alert sounds so that everyone nearby won’t hear when someone gets an email. Also, encourage people to have specific times when they check email and voice mail – once at the beginning of the day, once before lunch, once early afternoon, and once toward the end of the day. “That way, they are not constantly going back and forth between tasks causing a lower quality of work and the tasks take more time,” he says.

Also, Federman suggests encouraging people to schedule uninterrupted time in their calendars to get things done to ensure during that time they are focusing on a particular task. Scheduling breaks during the day to re-energize is also important to keep employees able to focus.

Finding time for work
With the multitude of distractions in many workplaces, workers often complain that they are so busy during the workday that they have to take home work requiring focus. “The line between when work stops and the rest of your life begins has been blurred and, in some cases, wiped completely away,” Federman says.

Employers can help by encouraging fewer and shorter meetings and providing time management and prioritizing training, Federman says. Also, employees need to be allowed to take breaks “for their own sanity and productivity,” he says.

“Most importantly, we need to give employees permission to evaluate what activities they are engaging in and determine whether or not they add value,” Federman says. “And then they need permission to say ‘no’ and let go of those activities. In order to truly say ‘yes’ to something, you have to be able to say ‘no’ to other things.”