Three minutes – that’s about how long the average office worker concentrates on their job before they get interrupted or interrupt themselves.
The three-minute figure is revealed in research by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Worse still, it can take workers up to 23 minutes to get back to the task they were working on after the interruption, says Mark.
Taking multi-tasking to task
Certainly when we picture a busy and successful executive, we usually conjure up someone who is multitasking: sending emails while on the phone; scanning the internet as they listen to a subordinate; or using a meeting to surreptitiously catch up on a few messages.
While all this activity might look – and even feel – like productivity, there’s a growing body of scientific literature which suggests multitasking is a very poor coping mechanism.
Indeed, the multitasking and time devoted to managing the email inbox mask an epidemic of invisible productivity losses in the workplace, according to Kate Boorer of workplace consultancy Employerbility.
Her research revealed a paradox. On the one hand, workers complain they are suffering more and more distractions and only a handful believe they can effectively disregard the distractions. Yet most people believe they are productive at work.
“These conflicting reports may be indicative of a newly established ‘norm’ where workers are so used to distraction and being overwhelmed that they perceive they are ‘being productive’ when in fact they are not,” Boorer writes in her Workplace Productivity report published this year.
Boorer advocates two steps to help solve the problem:
- An organisation needs to let its employees create a work environment that facilitates concentration.
- Individuals need to manage their work environment and minimise the impact of distractions and overload.
To cut down on distraction, some organisations encourage staff not to copy colleagues into emails unless they need to receive them, and likewise not to hit reply all to emails.
“What companies do is they give out more information and cascade it down,” says Pauline Stanton, professor of management specialising in human resources at Victoria University.
“There’s a whole lot of top-down information that’s contributing to the problem. How do you engage employees in a time of more and more stuff coming through?” Stanton says there’s been a huge growth in what she calls “administrivia”.
How a CEO copes
Hilti operates in 120 countries and employs about 22,000 people worldwide, the majority of them in white-collar roles. While the company has policies to reduce the amount of emails, the company doesn’t micromanage staff time.
“Every employee has to manage it themselves. We’re living in a digital age,” says Jan Pacas, managing director of Hilti.
The company has equipped its account managers with laptops and smart phones, which allow them to keep up with paperwork as they go about their day instead of returning to the office or catching up at night.
In this case, the technology is freeing up staff and allowing them more downtime. Laptops, tablets and smart phones can help staff in all sorts of organisations work at home, out of the way of office distractions, and early in the morning or late at night when they won’t have to deal with email or phone calls.
Rosemarie Dentesano, principal consultant at Right Management, a talent and career- management practice within recruitment firm Manpower Group, says individuals need to be agile to deal with office distractions.
“It’s not going to change. That’s the world we live in, so you actually need to adopt an agile mindset,” she says. “You have to be able to respond to competing demands that come to you through the day. But then you also need to be really clear about how you’re going to focus your attention.”
Dentesano is touching on mindfulness, a mental discipline that helps keep the mind on the single task at hand, or in the present moment. It has its roots in Eastern philosophy and religions and makes use of meditation.
“It’s basically about learning how to manage our attention,” says Rasmus Hougaard at the Potential Project, a Swedish-based organisation that teaches mindfulness globally to staff in companies including Carlsberg, Sony Electronics and General Electric.
He cites research showing the human mind wanders involuntarily in 47 per cent of our waking hours, including at work.
“What we suggest is that before any meeting to take at least 30 seconds to clear you mind,” he says. “That’s what they’re learning in mindfulness training – this ability in 30 seconds to let go of all the stuff that they just did so that they can come to the new meeting with a fresh mind.”