HR Management, Strategic HR

The Truth About Digital Distraction in the Workplace

Workplace productivity has been a top issue for human resources professionals since the inception of work. Every organization strives to maximize the return on labor and minimize wasted hours. Technological advances have aided that pursuit in many ways, but they have also complicated an age-old problem.

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Communication technology such as e-mail and Slack allows workers in disparate locations to get answers, solve problems, and collaborate in real time. However, in our always-on culture, communication technology has evolved from being helpful to being a hindrance.

In fact, a recent study found that 84% of e-mail users keep their in-box open in the background at all times, with 70% of e-mails being opened within 6 seconds of receipt.

We have become proficient at being responsive but sacrificed the ability to do our best work. Much of our most important work requires deep focus and time to think. Always-on communication technology demands workers to respond and, in doing so, steals the precious resource of focus and leaves your employees frustrated about not accomplishing “real work.”

But is e-mail and communication technology really that bad?

To find out, we looked at the anonymized worldwide data of more than 50,000 knowledge workers and found a trend of distraction and interruption in the workplace that was worse than we expected.

The Average Knowledge Worker “Checks In” on E-Mail and IM Every 6 Minutes

Knowledge workers—like writers, designers, developers, and project managers—depend on collaboration and quick access to information to meet the demands of their roles.

Communication tools facilitate getting the information needed, but they are also a constant source of interruption to our focused work. When we looked at the data, we found that the average knowledge worker “checks in” with communication tools every 6 minutes. (In this case, a “check in” is defined as any time you switch to a communication tool while working on another productive task.)

How can we expect employees to accomplish focused work when they only have a few minutes in between answering e-mails and messages? The short answer is that we cannot.

As we look at the full breakdown, the picture is even more bleak. Thirty-five percent of workers check their e-mail and IM every 3 minutes or less, while only 18% can go more than 20 minutes without being pulled into communication.

Even worse, we found that people who use Slack—a popular team chat tool meant to reduce e-mail use—actually switched to communication tools more often. Rather than streamlining our communication time, Slack users on average spent only 5 minutes in between communication check-ins, while non-Slack users could go 8 minutes.

The technology that we use to improve work is hurting our ability to get work done. The constant communication interruptions are not only diminishing productivity but also hindering workers from doing their best work and growing in their careers.

Communication Demands Diminish Deep Work

Our data show that 40% of knowledge workers never get 30 minutes straight of focused time in a workday. That means that nearly half of knowledge workers rarely get time for deep work.

In fact, the study revealed that the average knowledge worker maxes out at around 40 straight minutes of focused time free from communication. In other words, 40 minutes was the longest stretch most people went without checking e-mail in a day.

This was the median. As we delved deeper into the numbers, we discovered that 17% of people can’t even get 15 minutes straight of uninterrupted, focused time without communication, while only 30% are able to get an hour or more.

Addressing Digital Distractions

Recently, a New Zealand company did a productivity experiment and switched to a 4-day, 32-hour workweek. According to the company, “workers said the change motivated them to find ways of increasing their productivity while in the office. Meetings were reduced from two hours to 30 minutes, and employees created signals for their colleagues that they needed time to work without distraction.”

The New Zealand study yields important lessons that all organizations can apply with or without a 4-day workweek. When we allow workers to focus without distractions, productivity increases.

Many productivity experts have suggested batching communications into specific blocks during the day, while others have suggested committing to an hour or more of focused work without e-mail or IM during parts of your day when you’re less likely to be needed (like early in the morning).

The modern workplace is filled with distractions. As organizations work to improve productivity, the disruptive nature of communication tools is often overlooked.

We need e-mail and IM in the workday, but we need to shift how we utilize them. Being aware of the distraction can help organizations help workers find a better balance. Doing so will improve not only productivity but also employee satisfaction, as workers would feel more in command of their day.

It is time to help workers be more intentional in when and how they check communication tools. This may require shifting expectations of “instant answers” to every communication and setting realistic priorities. These data very clearly highlight an urgent need to regain focus and not allow communication tools to rob our productivity or digital wellness.

Robby Macdonell is the CEO of RescueTime, a company that helps people understand their relationship with technology so they can do more of their most important work. By tracking digital activities, RescueTime gives individuals a complete picture of their attention, as well as tools to take action toward a more balanced, meaningful workday.