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23 Minutes Lost: The Real Consequences of Digital Workplace Distractions

23 Minutes Lost: The Real Consequences of Digital Workplace Distractions

We’ve all been there: you’re dialed-in to a specific task, hyper-focused on completing it… and then some minor distraction pulls you away. An email notification chimes, a coworker asks you a simple question, an angry driver wails on his horn outside your window – and when you return to the task at hand, you realize that tunnel-vision focus you just had is now lost.   

It only affects you for a moment, and yet somehow the smallest distraction feels like an anvil’s been dropped on your productive flow. 

In fact, these little distractions are even more disruptive than they appear. A study from the University of California Irvine found that following a distraction, it takes employees an average of 23 minutes to refocus on the task they were working on. That’s a lot of time, especially when you consider how frequently these small distractions occur. It’s no wonder that 3 out of 4 workers saying they often feel distracted at work, with 16% admitting they’re “almost always” distracted. 

When companies transitioned to remote working, many believed one of the main benefits would be a reduction in workplace distractions. Unfortunately, the opposite has been true. 54% of workers say they face more distractions when working from home, largely due to the difficulty of separating work and nonwork life.

But what can truly be done to limit workplace distractions when they come in so many different shapes and sizes? And what role do HR and IT departments play in defending employees from constant disruptions?  

We answer all that and more in today’s deep-dive on workplace distractions.  

Distractions are a bigger threat to employee wellbeing than they are to productivity. 

Distractions are typically understood as a productivity killer – but the real problem is more complicated than “distractions cause employees to get less work done.” In fact, research suggests that distractions impact employee wellbeing far more than they do employee productivity. 

Take for example UC Irvine’s investigation into analysis of “disruption cost” (how much additional time employees need to reorient after an interruption). This experiment was conducted on multiple test groups who were tasked with sending work-related emails; there was one “undistracted” baseline group, while the other groups were periodically interrupted with questions, some of which were related to the task at hand, others were completely random. You’d think the baseline group got the most work done, right?   

Surprisingly, the interrupted groups actually worked faster than the baseline group, although they wrote less in their emails. However, the distracted workers experienced more stresshigher levels of frustration, and more pressure as a result of the disruptions.  

These consequences can be even more severe among remote and hybrid workforces, considering how significantly employee burnout has increased during remote working: 

If employers want to prevent their employees from suffering burnout, they have to proactively take measures to address the distraction conundrum. The question is: who exactly is responsible for getting rid of distractions in the digital workplace? 

Alleviating distractions requires a joint effort between HR and IT. 

At the end of the day, the burden of avoiding distraction is always going to fall on the employees themselves. But that doesn’t mean employers should let their workers suffer through constant frustration – as limiting distractions company-wide is only possible through strategic intervention. And in an increasingly digital environment, HR and IT departments will have to work together to make that strategy a success. 

On the HR side, it’s important for leaders to establish and effectively distribute protocols so that digital communication doesn’t lead to over-distraction. With the right “ground rules” and education campaigns, HR departments can accomplish the following: 

  • Ensure that tasks are requested through proper channels (example: requests for a graphic design team must be made using a designated project management system to avoid designers being bombarded with one-off messages).
  • Normalize “focus sessions” where employees can mute their messaging apps and emails for a block of time during the day. 
  • Reduce unnecessary meeting invites.
  • Inform digital workers with best practices for how to manage distractions when working from home versus in the office. 

Meanwhile, the negative impact of distractions underscores how important it is for IT to proactively eliminate even the smallest technology issues that employees face.  

A minor problem like a slow login or a freezing application might only cause a 10-second inconvenience, but in reality these small issues can throw employees off their game for much longer. If their IT department is identifying and proactively solving these issues before employees even notice them, the costly distraction never occurs.  

IT teams can also gather employee sentiment data to uncover the most impactful sources of distractions, and then work alongside HR to address these common pain points. 

Flexible technology empowers employees to manage distractions more effectively. 

In the same study we cited above, UC Irvine cited personality factors as a crucial variable that impacted disruption costs. For example, employees who are naturally more open to new experiences and less dependent on structure tend to be less affected by distractions. 

This is one of many reasons why organizations should equip their employees with flexible workplace technology 

When it comes to something like a project management solution, employees should have the ability to set their own preferences for how they engage with the tool. Being able to customize and set preferences for features like alerts, notifications, and do-not-disturb modes will give every employee more power of how they engage with the tool and avoid distractions as they work. 

I don’t think organizations will ever be able to create 100% distraction free environments. But through a combination of HR oversightproactive IT, and customizable workflows, organizations can alleviate many of the negative side-effects that come with remote and hybrid work.

After all, time is money – and employees should be empowered to spend it in the most productive way possible.