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The ROI of Focus: What’s the Cost When Employees Can’t Pay Attention?

By Michelle Grano / June 25, 2018

“Got a minute?”

Three seemingly innocent words with rather nefarious implications.

In the workplace this question is often posed, but seldom welcomed.

Because it’s never just a minute, is it?

Even if the interruption is brief – the distraction is not.

In fact, research shows that it takes an average of almost 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.

So while it really only takes a second to “snap out of it,” getting back into it is not that simple.

As a result, desk job employees report losing up to 5 hours a day due to distraction.

But it’s not just time they’re giving up – it’s focus.

And when our focus and concentration are compromised, so are our productivity and performance.

Why then is this “interruption culture” accepted as a workplace norm?

Author Edward Brown observes, “It’s as though there is nothing that can be done about it; interrupters must be permitted to continue no matter how injurious to productivity, job satisfaction, and work/life balance.”

So why aren’t managers doing more to protect their employees from these seemingly well-meaning focus thieves? Most often it’s one of three reasons:

    They mis-identify these interruptions and distractions as workplace norms.
    They don’t realize the true cost to their employees and their business.
    They’re unaware of or unwilling to experiment with possible solutions.

The Road to Interruption Is Paved With Good Intentions

The first step in every transformation is recognizing you have a problem. Or in this case, that your employees have a problem.

And that problem is well-meaning time-wasters.

We all know good communication is at the heart of every healthy relationship, whether it’s romantic or in the workplace.

But when it comes to focus, there is such a thing as too much communication.

Every time your employee has to shift focus from their task at hand and read an email or message, it’s killing their productivity.

The same goes for meetings.

This survey found that the number one time-waster at work was too many meetings – preparing for them, attending them and debriefing after them.

One company’s weekly executive meeting was found to have taken up 300,000 hours of employees’ time in one year.

And again, I’m sure no one thought it was a waste of time. Many times these weekly meetings are set to check in and share updates and exchange information on ongoing projects. But with all that time lost, they’re often doing more harm than good.

Most employees won’t speak up for themselves because this communication overload is often assumed to be a necessary evil in the workplace. But it’s time for both employees and managers to challenge that thought process.

Just because it’s always been the way we work, doesn’t mean it’s working.

The Devil Is in the Distraction

One of the reasons why it’s most difficult for managers to understand their employees’ struggle for focus is because they operate on a different kind of work schedule.

Most managers manage their daily schedule like an appointment book, with their days divided into one-hour intervals. It’s easier for people to book time with you this way, since your calendar mainly operates as a tool to show the times you’re available.

But most of your employees need a “maker’s” schedule, where their days are divided into units of half a day.

As Paul Graham explains it, “You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

Makers need longer stretches of uninterrupted time to get their work done – time often referred to as “in the zone.”

The zone: A state of mind, characterized by hyper-focus, productivity and performance.

A place where the world around you disappears and all that matters is the task at hand or the goal ahead.

Athletes chase it. Creatives crave it. The modern workday…kills it.

If your employees have to keep looking up from their screen to address a question from a coworker, reply to an email or attend a meeting, they will never reach the deep level of thinking and focus required to knock out their to-do lists.

And distractions don’t just compromise employee productivity, they also weaken morale.

Research done by Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine, indicated that “people in interrupted conditions experience a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure and effort.”

Lack of focus begins a downward spiral leading to a loss of time and productivity, which leads to stress and frustration, and eventually an overall lack of energy and enthusiasm for their work in general.

It’s incredibly demotivating to feel as though you never have enough time to get your work done – especially if that also means having to work longer hours to keep up.

And while these may seem like less tangible consequences, there is also a more measurable impact of workplace distractions on your business’s bottom line. Because time = money.

Using the data provided in this article, you could easily take the average number of interruptions per day and multiply it by the average time lost per interruption to get a total amount of daily wasted working hours.

Then simply calculate your employees’ average hourly compensation, multiply it by those wasted hours, and you have a very real cost of distraction.

The Best Offense Is a Good Defense

There’s simply no denying the threat workplace distractions and interruptions pose to both your employees and your business as a whole.

But there’s also no denying your responsibility as a manager to do what you can to help your employees overcome this challenge. They deserve to have every possible resource they need to succeed at their disposal.

So avoid the trap of old thinking – that “that’s just the way it is.” Because there are solutions out there.

Many working men and women are starting to take back control of their calendars by building reserved “focus days” into their weekly schedules – a day free of external distractions, meetings, messages and “got a minutes?”

For many a focus day simply means a schedule free of meetings. Others take it a step further, hanging a digital “Do Not Disturb” sign to silence emails and other communication channels as well.

Some may also choose to work somewhere other than the physical office, like a local coffee shop or in some cases even their own homes.

Consider offering weekly focus days as an option for your workplace.

Uncomfortable with the idea of having employees completely off the grid? Start with small changes in the office instead.

Encourage a company-wide calendar audit to identify, cut or consolidate unnecessary or recurring meetings.

Suggest that your employees silence notifications and only use Slack and Email when absolutely necessary.

You can also designate quiet areas in the office space where employees can retreat to get in the zone.

It may be easier for new companies to build up distraction defenses from the very get-go, but it’s never too late to pivot toward practices that better support employee focus and productivity.

It’s Business Time

It can take a real shift in mindset to realize that busy employees aren’t necessarily productive employees.

But now that you’re able to properly identify workplace distractions, understand their true cost and what you can do to minimize them, imagine the potential positive impact you can have on your employees and your business.

Make up for lost time by investing in the uninterrupted focus of your employees and watch as their productivity, well-being, performance and retention improve.

All proof that it pays to pay attention.

Michelle Grano

Michelle Grano

is a Staff Writer for Adapt by Sprout Social. Prior to writing for Adapt, Grano worked in advertising as a digital copywriter at Energy BBDO. She recently traded her high-rise city digs for the suburbs to be closer to family and her nephew, Rock.
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