Workplace distractions are costing employers thousands of hours in lost productivity, found a recent report. What are employees’ biggest distractions, and how can HR help teams regain their focus?
In today’s hyperconnected world, maintaining focus on work-related tasks has become increasingly challenging. With colleagues, meetings and messages competing for our attention, the pressure to multitask can result in huge amounts of time lost to distractions.
The price of lost focus to businesses was examined by a recent global study, which revealed Australia is ranked second in the world for the highest number of hours lost due to workplace distractions.
The research, conducted by Economist Impact and commissioned by Dropbox, found that the average Australian employee is losing 600 hours each year to lost focus, placing us just behind France (608 hours).
The most common distractions leading to lost focus cited by respondents were work-related chat messages (166 hours), personal activities (146 hours) and work-related emails (82 hours).
“The research shows that, for knowledge workers – whether they work from home, an office or somewhere in between – distractions have become an inescapable part of their working lives,” says Pia Broadley, Head of APAC at Dropbox.
“But not all distractions are inevitable or equal… While we can’t eliminate every distraction, we can embrace new ways of working to bring order to the chaos.”
Sources of workplace distractions
Most people can relate to the difficulty of refocusing attention on the task at hand after pausing to check a message or attend an unrelated meeting.
“Today’s modern work environment is filled with tech tools, visual triggers and interactions that, while designed to help make work more efficient and collaborative, can become distractions to knowledge workers,” says Broadley.
The research found that, in the midst of these distractions, Aussies spend an average of 131 hours annually trying to regain their focus. Forty-two per cent of knowledge workers said they rarely spent more than an hour on productive work without interruption.
The global survey also revealed that managers lose focus more frequently than other positions (683 hours per year compared to 553 hours for general staff). The report puts this down to the fact that managerial responsibilities tend to require more frequent multitasking.
According to Broadley, a key HR takeaway from the findings is that how, when and where workers do their best work with the fewest distractions is very specific to the individual.
“For some, finding focus is influenced by where they work,” she says. “Of those surveyed, remote workers found their productivity and wellbeing to be better when working from home, while on-site workers said the same about working from an office.
“For others, finding focus depends on when they work – for example, working whenever they feel the most productive throughout the day, rather than working for eight hours straight.”
While work location did not necessarily dictate the amount of focus lost to distractions, the type of distractions experienced by remote and on-site workered differed; on-site workers cited face-to-face interruptions as their worst distraction, while remote workers were distracted by household chores and demands from others sharing their space. Both groups wrestled with disruptions from meetings, emails and chat messages.
Read HRM’s article on the psychology behind why we attend so many meetings.
Crucially, the more agency workers had over their schedule and environment, the better outcomes they saw for focus, work quality and wellbeing.
Help employees minimise workplace distractions and regain focus
While work-related communications were a significant cause of lost focus for employees, one potential concern for employers is that cutting down on communication may impede collaboration and teamwork.
According to Broadley, striking a balance between fostering strong collaboration practices and minimising distractions means focusing on the quality of interactions rather than the quantity.
For instance, at Dropbox, teams manage distractions from work-related communications by adhering to what they call ‘core collaboration hours’.
“These are company-wide four-hour time blocks reserved for real-time synchronous and collaborative work, which overlap across time zones,” she says. “The remaining four hours of the day are reserved for asynchronous, deep and distraction-free work.”
“The easier it is for knowledge workers to find, share and organise the information they need, the more likely it is that whatever interruptions remain will actually be worth their time.” – Pia Broadley, Head of APAC, Dropbox
Employees at the company determine if meetings are required by establishing if they relate to the ‘3d’s’: discussion, debate and/or decision-making. Otherwise, they’re encouraged to consider whether the meeting could be replaced with an email or recorded message.
“Businesses can look at other ways of creating environments and infrastructure that help workers get into the ‘flow’ and ‘stay in the zone’, [as well as] giving workers the agency and flexibility to choose how and when they work best, and empowering them to schedule meeting-free, dedicated focus time,” says Broadley.
Leveraging AI and automation to regain focus
The report’s findings showed the majority of employees are optimistic about the impact this technology will have on their productivity.
“Generative AI is opening up a world of possibilities,” says Broadley. “AI and automation tools are already having an impact on improving workflows and reducing distractions, with 79 per cent of respondents finding they are more productive and 70 per cent saying they’re more organised [as a result of these tools].”
In the future, employees hope that AI will help them automate repetitive tasks (40 per cent), find and summarise information (30 per cent) and answer questions (20 per cent).
“The biggest potential is in personalised AI – an AI that knows about you, your company and your content,” says Broadley.
This might include personalised chatbots to provide employees with quick answers to questions, circumventing the need to reach out to a colleague, or recording tools that allow meetings to be replaced with video or audio messages that can be accessed asynchronously.
“The easier it is for knowledge workers to find, share, and organise the information they need, the more likely it is that whatever interruptions remain will actually be worth their time.”
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