We’ve all had those days - where you’re technically working, but you don’t seem to be getting anything done. Research by Atlassian shows that 80% of distractions at work are trivial in nature, and that less than 60% of our time spent working is actually productive. Distractions, therefore, have always been part of the job, but over the course of the past two years, how they manifest themselves has changed dramatically.
Let’s examine these old and new distractions, and see what can be done about them.
Old distractions: At the office
The office environment is no stranger to distractions. Coworkers perched on the desk for a chat, the cacophony of office phones and colleagues on calls. Then there’s the toe tapping, humming, chair dancing; small behaviours that, when combined, are the stuff of workplace nightmares. Morning delays on public transport ruin days, and professional trips abroad are pressure cookers of working, networking and socialising, without any of the comforts of home.
And meetings, the dreaded time suckers, spent mostly daydreaming or feeling overwhelmed, according to Time Wasting at Work. The average employee faces 56 interruptions over the course of their work day, and it takes a full two hours to recover from all these distractions.
New distractions: In the home
Our homes are also bottomless pits of distractions. Deliveries at the door, the internet going down, the dog wanting to play, laundry to hang out, lunch to be made, YouTube rabbit holes to dive down. Then there’s the constant noise - buzzing dishwashers, car alarms, traffic outside, neighbours, the weather. Not to mention being burdened with full time childcare and homeschooling - research by Education Week said that school closures during the pandemic impacted 55.1m children in the US. Another report by Fishbowl stated that 62% of those surveyed said they were unable to juggle WFH and childcare. Times were tough, but made tougher by these new, more demanding, unrelated work distractions.
How they differ
At the office, workers benefit from the psychology of the collective - the fact that all employees are concentrated in one space or building means that they are influenced by each other’s behaviour, resulting in a collective regulation. Employees are therefore less likely to indulge in obvious distractions, like endlessly scrolling through social media, because they know their managers, and even coworkers, will pick up on it if they do.
At home, the nature of distractions, while at times unwelcome, are likely more pleasant. FlexJobs has surveyed thousands of remote workers and found that the flexibility of working remotely improves personal relationships, lowers stress levels and increases health and wellbeing. However, unlike an office environment, managing the distractions presented at home requires much more self-regulation. The only person policing your screen time is you, and it’s all too easy to succumb to the “always-on culture” if interruptions, distractions and life/work balance isn’t addressed properly.
These “new distractions” at home might be smaller, and come from loved ones as opposed to colleagues, but they can be just as detrimental to productivity, and the satisfaction that comes with having done a good day’s work.
Managers - How can I manage remote workers better?
Managers have a key role to play when it comes to supporting their remote employees in terms of coping with distractions. If workers feel like there is a boss on the other end of the computer who rules with an iron fist, this will only increase their stress, thus further impacting their productivity.
Recruitment agency Morgan McKinley says that recognising the importance of maintaining employee wellbeing is central to team morale and staff retention. This is particularly relevant in the age of “The Great Resignation”. Whether your team is office based, hybrid, or fully remote, Morgan McKinley says that “Flexibility should be extended to all your workers. Adjusted hours will ease the load of juggling childcare or other family commitments with work, and is a great way to improve employee wellbeing.”
At the end of the day, managers are experiencing the same demands as their employees. By understanding and empathising with their situations, lines of communication will be established that will make workers feel safe and supported. This video by HubSpot, currently ranked the second best company to work for in the world by Glassdoor, offers some reminders and tips on how to change your management style to better assist your staff.
Employees - How can I manage myself better
As mentioned above, it required self-discipline and self-regulation to block out all of the distractions when working from home. Managing distractions when working remotely comes down to a self-awareness of what distractions trigger you the most, as well as prioritising urgent tasks so that these can be tackled first. Aim to get into a consistent workflow, and make sure you are switching off properly at the end of the day.
However, be gentle with yourself as well. Chaya Gutnick, founder of operational efficiency consultancy Control My Chaos, says, “Control what you can and try to be flexible and patient with what you cannot control.” Online workplace platform Sococo puts it this way: “You can’t always control what’s going on around you. What you can control is how you respond to it.” What you can do is take ownership of your time, and be more assertive and proactive with protecting it. Distractions happen, it’s how we deal with them that counts.