Why You Can't Get Any Work Done

Workplace distractions cost U.S. business some $650 billion a year. Here's how managers can keep employees focused

Sly Kodrin, vice-president for operations at a hinge manufacturing company in Alliance, Ohio, likes to maintain a shop floor that balances passion with productivity, allowing his 75 employees to listen to music and socialize, as long as it does not interfere with their work.

But when a stamping press operator brought golf clubs to work one day and began swinging at rolled-up work gloves while he was in charge of an automatic stamp press, Kodrin's line had been crossed.

"Most people, I tend to believe, thought it was funny at first," Kodrin says about the incident, which rose above the ordinary distractions of equipment noise, weather, blackouts, and news of the day.

But the humor dissipated quickly, and Kodrin sat the employee down, asking him what was needed to reenergize him about his work at Marlboro Manufacturing. The two were then able to put the incident behind them.

Cracking Down on Goofing Off

In a work environment where digital and cellular transmissions pile another layer of distractions on top of traditional horseplay on the shop floor and water-cooler gossip at the office, some distracting employees have not been so lucky. In fact, more and more businesses would be better cracking down on such distractions. It is estimated that American businesses lose around $650 billion a year through workplace distractions, according to Jonathan Spira, chief analyst of Manhattan consulting firm Basex, who authored a report called "The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity."

Bruce Lynskey, a former marketing director for technology company Wellfleet Communications , once fired a middle manager for spending an estimated 40% to 50% of his time wandering around the office disturbing other employees, surfing the Web, paying bills, and reading industry magazines.

"It's nice to keep up with the industry, but I think you should do that on your own," says Lynskey, who teaches a course on managing fast-growing businesses at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, Tenn.

Experts say that goofing off at work is rare, but more routine distractions can also have a detrimental impact on productivity.

More hours in the day

Chuck Martin, president of NFI Research, a data analysis firm that tracks business, management, and informational technology trends, says work-related distractions like e-mail, company crises, and interruptions by co-workers are so common that 46% of business leaders arrive at work early in search of solitude. But their peace is often disrupted when their employees follow suit, seeking the boss's attention early in the morning or late in the day because there is less competition for it, says Martin, author of SMARTS: Are We Hardwired for Success? "What that does is it destroys work-life balance," Martin says. "They're basically extending the hours of the day."

Martin argues in his book that the key to improving an employee's focus and productivity is acknowledging his or her strengths and weaknesses according to a set of 12 cognitive functions, including time management, stress tolerance, planning/prioritization, and flexibility. Those skills are generally unchangeable in adulthood, Martin says, cautioning managers to exercise tolerance for behaviors that may seem unnatural to them.

"Whether you have high or low distractibility depends on how neurons fire in your brain," says Martin. "It's like your height: You can't really fix this in people but you can address the biggest problem or two that it causes, and the primary way is to modify their environment."

To reduce environmental distractions, managers and consultants recommend blocking cubicle entrances with stop signs or ribbons, and checking e-mail at scheduled times only. "The major complaint for people in cubicles versus offices is no door," says David Javitch, an employee management columnist for Entrepreneur.com and president of Massachusetts consulting firm Javitch Associates. "That stop sign is comical, yet it's very powerful."

Javitch, who retains his focus by answering e-mail only every hour or two, also recommends scheduling employee breaks around individual biorhythms and placing a phone in the lunch room to compartmentalize personal business. For people with ADD/ADHD, Javitch says a noise-emitting egg timer that provides a minimal distraction may improve concentration by making the brain work harder.

Coping with Big Changes

Changes in the workplace environment, however, can also be the source of a companywide distraction, as in the case of merging organizations. Lynskey, a marketing director at Wellfleet Communications when the company acquired SynOptics Communications in 1994, says the merger was so distracting that the new company, Bay Networks, fell behind its top competitor, Cisco Systems (CSCO), and never recovered. The company has since been acquired by Nortel Networks (NT).

For more moderate distractions, experts offer a variety of solutions that vary in accordance with the theories about what causes them. Lynskey blames distractions on overstaffing and employees having too much time on their hands and confronts the problem by handing them more work, while Martin suggests breaking down employees' assignments into smaller tasks when focusing is a challenge.

Dick Grote, founder of management consulting firm Grote Consulting in Dallas, argues that overworking employees and giving managers too many employees to supervise distracts them from their core mission of doing quality work. That dynamic is bad for business.

"If I'm getting so many e-mails that I'm just dashing off curt replies or ignoring some of them, it makes our company look bad," says Grote. "It causes me to make foolish errors."

According to Madbury (N.H.)-based NFI Research, two-thirds of 228 senior executives and managers who responded to a recent survey say e-mail is the most prominent workplace disruption, followed by crisis of the day (42%), personal interruptions (31%), and changing priorities (30%).

Don't Ask Me—Look It Up

When regular disruptions are caused by lack of information, Jill Bemis, accounting director for the Minnesota Agriculture Dept., improves mass communication. To reduce disruptive employee questions she creates how-to manuals and organizes conferences to go over department procedures. "That helps decrease distractions because the people who create the distractions know what they need to do," says Bemis, who is also interrupted by two dozen walk-in customers a day.

At a prior position as financial officer for Metropolitan State University, Bemis created a Web site for students to find answers to frequently asked questions that were taking up her time.

Gregory Harris, president of Quantum Market Research, a firm that does employee engagement surveys for 4,200 companies annually, says managers can keep their employees focused by providing them with opportunities for career growth, rewarding their accomplishments, and getting rid of the bad apples.

Define Your Breaking Point

"Motivations are a function of engagement, which is critical because we know that engagement is the primary determinant of productivity," says Harris. Experts say disruptive employees can generally be rehabilitated successfully, but that termination is necessary in rare cases.

Grote recommends using "managerial bifocals" to distinguish disruptions that affect productivity and require intervention from minor disturbances like when several employees waited by the time clock at the end of their shift at General ElectricGE, where he was once a first-line foreman. Martin invokes a similar test. "When the amount of work and effort exceeds the value of what the employee contributes, that's the breaking point," he says.

So take time off from your job and click here to find out what are the biggest distractions in the workplace.

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