Are Workplace Distractions Hurting your Bottom Line?

Distractions may lead to poor productivity and performance according to a new report.
By: | March 28, 2018 • 3 min read
Workplace distractions

When a dog sees a squirrel out in the yard, it stops everything to chase it.

A squirrel is so distracting that nothing else matters, even if the dog was digging up a hidden treat or playing fetch.

Eventually when the squirrel skitters away the dog loses interest and refocuses on the original task.

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Though humans are an advanced species, we too have our own distractions. For some of us it may be a cute animal, but more likely its smart devices and other tech. We live in a disruptive world making it hard to concentrate on one task at a time. Emails, phone calls, socializing, social media and more are constantly tugging us in all directions—both at home and at work.

This barrage of disruptions is not only difficult to navigate, but significantly impacts productivity, according to a report from Udemy, a global online marketplace for learning and teaching.

“Devices and technology are only becoming more pervasive, and we’re all becoming more reliant on them,” says Darren Shimkus vice president and general manager of Udemy for Business. “New generations entering the workforce have never lived any other way. While we’ve let devices and technologies become fixtures, we haven’t reckoned with how they’re undermining our ability to focus and work smart.”

According to the Udemy report, which surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. employees on distractions at work, millennials and Gen Z were most likely to be distracted by using tech for personal activities followed by Gen X and baby boomers (78 percent, 57 percent and 43 percent, respectively). On the flip side, baby boomers were most likely to be distracted by using work-related technology (57 percent).

The top distraction across the three generations was Facebook—the highest percentage of those distracted by it were baby boomers (71 percent vs. 69 percent of Gen X and 58 percent of millennials).

The report does note that a majority of respondents said they’re able to refocus on work within 30 minutes of a distraction, but on any given workday, distractions cost employees (and employers) an average of 2 hours per employee per day.

These shortened work days mean that employees will compensate for time by working faster, but this solution causes more trouble in the form of stress, frustration, time pressure and effort.

While it may be easy to see these data and decide to ban all smart devices at work, it’s not really a solution, says Shimkus.

“What’s needed is more training on using technology efficiently at work, but employees also need support filling in gaps in their soft skills—fundamentals like achieving focus and time management, “ he says. “[Training can also] address the specific distractions of the modern workplace to help them succeed as more distractions are added to the mix.”

Addressing distractions at work is critical because more than half of all the survey respondents said that they aren’t performing as well as they should be and they’re significantly less productive (54 percent and 50 percent, respectively). When asked if they think training could help them learn how to block out distractions and focus on work, most of the respondents answered yes (70 percent).

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Shimkus notes that training alone won’t fix the issues of distraction and productivity, however, there are other ways employers can help their employees. For example, 80 percent of respondents cited “chatty” co-workers and noisy offices as the top distractor. Forty percent suggested that more flexibility to work from home would improve focus and productivity while 38 percent said that designating space in the office for quiet work would also be beneficial.

“Employers should aim to foster a learning culture that starts at the top and permeates the entire organization,” says Shimkus. “By demonstrating company-wide support of a learning mindset, employees aren’t reluctant to speak up when they have a training need.”

Considering that 66 percent of respondents said they feel uncomfortable speaking to their managers about learning needs around distractions and technology, it’s important for a company’s L&D team, no matter the size, to stress that learning of any sort on the job is valued and encouraged.

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]