How the Pandemic Changed Our Perspective on Employee Engagement
How to Reduce the Cost of Your Employees’ Distractions
At the workplace, people struggle with multiple distractions and tend to lose focus. Issues with attention inevitably affect their workflow and effectiveness. Work interruption, states Edward G. Brown, an efficiency and workflow consultant, can cost around six hours a day for each employee—this is the data from 2015; the scale of the annual loss of hours is huge, as well as the cost for businesses. Moreover, recent studies found that over 40% of entrepreneurs believe that not being able to stay focused and find time are the biggest obstacles that prevent them from creating a new product, service, or successfully launching a new business.
The good news is that this cost can be reduced with the help of learning and development, HR specialists, managers, and other professionals who work with human capital. Here’s our guide for it.
First of all, to maximize your employees’ focus, a human source of productivity and efficiency, you have to know how interruptions work and how they affect your workplace.
Why and how do we lose focus?
Unexpected events or Interruptions
It’s known from neuroscience that the brain system that is called the subthalamic nucleus (STN), involved in stopping movement, also interrupts our thinking process. STN signals “stop” when something unexpected is happening around us—at that moment, we stop what we were doing or thinking about. This mechanism was very useful for early humans: unexpected events were dangerous for living creatures, so people left their current doings and reacted to the trigger with a fight or flight response.
Today, that mechanism, useful for survival in the past, pauses people’s activities, making them lose focus and time because after an interruption the vast majority of people can’t immediately go back to what they were doing.
Now, Basex, a productivity research firm, defines four categories of interruptions:
- Total interruptions, which completely occupy employees’ minds, like a phone call;
- Dominant interruptions, which largely occupy employees’ minds too, with an initial task or thought at the background, like a small task that needs to be done immediately;
- Distractions that don’t stop a working process but recurrently draw employees’ attention away, like notifications in social media;
- Background activities or emotional states, which constantly steal portions of employees’ focus and reduce their accuracy or speed, like worrying about a trial or a high level of noise in the office.
These interruptions take up a lot of employees’ time and, when combined the number of hours wasted, can easily be more than the hours spent working. Here’s what the latest data says.
A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College, notes that workplace interruptions can cause employees to take 27% more time to complete a task and that the work process will be followed with twice as many errors. Another research from 2018, conducted by Udemy shows that more than a third of millennials and Gen Z spend two hours a week checking their smartphone. They also spend another ten hours a week doing something that doesn’t relate to their job responsibilities.
Let’s also take a look at data provided by Gloria Mark from the University of California in her study on work interruptions:
- The average amount of time that employees spend on any single event before being interrupted is three minutes; every three minutes, an employee’s thinking process completely changes direction;
- Employees need to spend 25 minutes, on average, to restore focus. Employees often underestimate the amount of time they need to restore focus and believe that they can come back to an initial task more quickly;
- The size of a contact network around employees plays a huge role in creating disruptions. Managers suffer from these the most.
In addition, almost half of workplace interruptions are internal or when employees interrupt themselves (reaching for the phone, switching a task, going for a coffee, etc.). Internal interruptions can also be based on our brain’s unique ability to analyze the past and predict the future, thoughts about previous fails or about future wins. They are also harmful for work because they aren’t connected to people’s current occupations. Other interruptions are external, the majority of which are changes in employees’ physical environments (someone comes in, some new documents appear on the desk, another call starts ringing in the office, etc.). It takes time for employees to get used to these “transformations” in their reality.
So, what are the consequences of the above-mentioned data?
- 54% of Udemy’s research respondents think they aren’t performing as well as they should;
- Half of them believe that they’re significantly less productive;
- 34% of respondents state that due to interruptions they like their jobs less: distractions drive disengagement.
While HRs write in descriptions for some open job positions that they’re looking for a candidate who can multitask, multitasking is not the best way to handle job responsibilities in some cases.
Multitasking, says Gloria Mark, decreases concentration by 20-40% and deteriorates our brain’s activity by 53%. According to her research, employees shift working spheres, or working activities, every ten minutes. This period of time is called an attention span. In such a situation, it’s obviously challenging to be effective. Ten minutes are not enough to maintain attention and accuracy and dive into the flow of doing a task, but it’s enough to miss subtle cues and make mistakes.
Small uncompleted tasks
The work spheres that Gloria Mark is talking about could consist of one large task or small, uncompleted or urgent tasks.
Small tasks become a cause for losing focus. Employees want to finish what’s easiest first, as easier tasks are usually smaller, so they spend a lot of time working on these small tasks while sacrificing work time that was initially dedicated to some larger and more important and/or complicated tasks. Switches to small tasks are often provoked by our brain’s habit to choose the path of least resistance.
Notifications from social media like Facebook or from communication platforms like Slack are also distractive—even for a social media manager. The tricky thing about them is that they can be ignored or reacted upon. You could postpone answering an email or respond right away—but you’ll be distracted, more or less, anyway. Attention shifts for a microscopic moment, but the immediate “come back” is impossible. The focus is lost.
Plus, it’s during times when companies have begun to integrate the distributed workforce principles to transform their traditional schedules, and workflows being constantly online may seem to be a norm. It’s not though. Notifications and emails that employees receive when they’re at home, as well as quick questions from colleagues, affect employees’ cognition. The University of London’s study finds that being always connected has the same impact on employees’ IQ as “losing a night’s sleep” or “smoking marijuana.”
What’s more, constant connectivity causes distortions in work-life balance which is also often a reason for people to lose alertness or the ability to focus as well as anxiety and personal struggles.
How to fight distractions and help employees achieve focus
If you know how distractions work, you definitely can reduce them and increase your workforce’s productivity. It’s the first piece of good news. In addition, your employees probably already know that they tend to lose focus; they are aware that interruptions influence their productivity and want to improve.
Develop a dedicated instructional course for maintaining focus
According to Udemy, 70% of employees agreed that training can help them block out distractions. So they will most likely be already engaged with the idea of an instructional course. For training to be effective, it’s better to create a collaboration between L&D, HR professionals, and managers or team leads.
- Using learning or management systems, conduct surveys on employees’ feeling of productivity, focus, and distractions. With this data, you’ll see what’s going on in the workplace in general and how employees feel about their environment and themselves.
- Compare this data to employees’ performance data, which could be provided by their managers or from your internal performance management system. You’ll probably find out that those who have difficulties focusing on their jobs or those who multitask perform less effectively than those who don’t.
- Create content describing attention and time management techniques. For any instructional course—and for that specifically—it’s better to use microlearning: a short format of content that fits the average human attention span (ten minutes) perfectly.
- Track the efficiency of training through employees’ performance and training data and subsequent surveys on their productivity and ability to focus.
Udemy’s research shows that the majority of employees not only know that they have issues with attention. They also try to cope with distractions by themselves. The ways of gaining focus are different for different people. They may prefer mindfulness meditation, timers, blocking software, or even special rituals that trigger their attention. The idea is to provide them with the awareness of these techniques through your training.
Design learning and working experiences with employees in mind
Christina Bengtsson, Swedish world champion in precision shooting, said in her TEDx Talk: “Focus is choosing one right thought from thousands of others.” Focus allows us to dive into our activities, using the full capacity of our cognition, skills and abilities to stay in the moment of absolute dedication and involvement. To help employees fight interruptions and maintain focus, you have to design all workplace activities—the work itself, learning, management—to match the function of human attention.
Base employees’ learning and working on the principles of prioritization. The first and most important skill you should provide your employees with is to prioritize away: to choose one task to focus on and complete. This will 1) allow them to cope with internal interruptions and quickly recover from distractions and 2) allow them to create a consistent task flow to complete and minimize the disturbing effects of the above-mentioned small tasks. Also, focusing on learning is easier if we understand that we will have to apply the obtained knowledge immediately. This is why a performance-based training platform is so efficient in improving employees’ focus.
It’ll be useful to show employees practical and work-related examples of how to use the Eisenhower Matrix to handle their job activities. The key is to stay in “Not Urgent/Important” mode as long as it’s possible.
Introduce blocking software and time trackers. These tools can be integrated into your corporate CMS or LMS, installed on corporate PCs or laptops, or can function independently. Freedom blocks different websites, while the Pomodoro timer helps to plan, track, record, process, and visualize working activities. Using them should be voluntary. When implementing distraction management, don’t force mandatory rules, techniques, or approaches for the whole workplace. People lose focus similarly, but ways to regain and maintain it are different for everyone. Banning social media at the workplace, for instance, is generalized and not effective: first, it will cause frustration for the majority of your employees—and frustration is also bad for focus; second, those who want to surf Facebook at 3 PM will find a way to do it.
Keep attention span in mind. We’ve already stated that microlearning is perfect for delivering instructional materials to employees because this format corresponds to humans’ attention spans. However, it’s also important to reduce the number of possible distractions inside of systems that the workplace use—especially in a learning platform. For instance, it’s vital to provide a learning platform with a search engine that will operate inside the system like Google, instead of directing learners to some URL or YouTube. Why? “Suggested videos” on YouTube—and now they’re not learning how to cook a Greek salad, they’re learning how to rap.
Personalize learning and working activities. Pay attention to employees’ learning styles and preferences, gather data about their performance, and design learning experiences in an individualized way. In this case, learning will be more productive because in an environment that is familiar and comfortable for a learner, it’s easier to develop focus. The same applies for work experiences: make sure employees have an opportunity to choose how to work and how to be most productive. A personalized and employee-centric approach drives employees’ engagement and shows them that you support their efforts in dealing with distractions.
Provide employees with practical cases on how to predict future interruptions. Train your workplace to use their predictive skills for a really good cause; this can be done with scenario-based training. Let them define what draws their attention away most and “plan” when their focus will be lost. For instance, they may choose a few moments a day for checking emails or social media, but there must be no Twitter scrolling during other work time.
Don’t discourage multitasking. While it’s proven that multitasking isn’t productive, many projects still require it. Moreover, multitasking often makes employees feel good because they can handle a lot of tasks at the same time. If your workers have to multitask, help them to develop an algorithm of the above-mentioned de-prioritizing actions. Experienced multitaskers always keep this algorithm in their head.
The cost of lost focus is great. The right employee experience can translate into big gains
One more thing: we tend to love our jobs because of how we feel when doing them. When we lose focus, our productivity decreases, and our image of ourselves fades or becomes not as attractive as it was. Also, according to Udemy, most respondents didn’t ask their managers or team leads to help them with their attention issues because “they felt insecure about revealing areas of perceived weakness.”
Developing focus in employees is vital for business productivity, performance, and revenue, yes, but it’s also important for your people. Being focused and bringing results makes them know that they are making real contributions and helps companies deliver on its vision and mission.
Request a free demo and talk to our experts to see how our science-based learning solution will help your employees stay focused and increase productivity!
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