How to Manage Workplace Productivity in the Age of Distraction

How the Age of Distraction is Impacting Workplace Productivity

The workplace has never been better set up for fast communications and easy collaboration but could the very tools designed to enhance workplace productivity actually be undermining it?

Carolyn Creswell, founder and CEO of Carman’s, is an expert at multitasking. Her muesli brand is valued at an estimated $170 million and she’s also raising four teenagers. She says her most effective time is in the air. “I was thinking last week that I should just fly to Sydney [from Melbourne]. I’m more productive in that one hour on a plane than I am in a whole day.”

Distractions and interruptions are a part of modern working life but where it used to be a constantly ringing phone, these days the number one disruption is from workplace messaging apps such as Slack, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams.

According to a global report by Economist Impact, part of the Economist Group, chat messages at work account for 157 hours of lost time annually. They aren’t the only attention-diverters. The average knowledge worker loses almost 600 hours a year with interruptions coming from emails, work-related meetings and social media. Once those intrusions happen, it takes up to 131 hours each year trying to refocus.

It’s not just staff suffering from tech overkill. Managers experience significantly more lost focus hours than their employees. The major complaints at this level include time spent in unproductive meetings; the time it takes to regain focus after interruptions (up to 25 minutes); and the need to switch between different administrative tasks.

The economic and social costs of tech interruptions

The Economic Impact report puts the annual cost of distractions for Australian businesses at $27,585 per employee or 29 per cent of an average salary. But according to organisational psychologist and leadership and executive coach Peter Doyle, the repercussions go well beyond the monetary value.

“The less severe examples include increased forgetfulness, irritation and a higher frequency of mistakes,” he says. The more serious side effects can include anxiety, depression, burnout and sleep disturbance. The cost then becomes staff retention. “Some of your best people will simply vote with their feet and leave. Potentially, the culture of the workplace declines, with increased conflict, workplace grievances and sick leave across your teams, then performance, productivity and profitability can spiral.”

Technology: Does it help or hinder productivity?

Women in Business

According to the research, 42 per cent of knowledge workers say they typically don’t spend more than an hour on focus work without interruption and that one of the main distractions is notifications – 60 per cent of workers said they felt the pressure to respond to messages immediately. Matt Cowdroy, CEO of Think Productive, suggests managers and staff need to get better at using these workplace tools. “One of the key things is managing the notifications. Pop-up notifications are extremely distracting and that’s what’s causing us to jump between different tasks. Turn off as many notifications as possible.”

Creswell says managing her apps and notifications is a crucial aspect of organising her time. “I’m very selective; my two forms of communication are email or text message. I choose not to have notifications on WhatsApp and I only look at Teams when I want to. My assistant checks my Teams. I find it’s just too much for me to be on top of.”

Ben Dawson, vice-president of Cisco Australia and New Zealand, looks at the positive impact these forms of contact offer businesses (Cisco owns Webex and uses it throughout the organisation). “There’ll be informal conversations and social interactions – it’s not all about work and measurable productivity – but for the most part [messaging apps] have replaced email as the primary form of communication. It’s very effective in terms of timeliness and the ability to interact with large numbers of people on a rapid basis.”

The Economic Impact report supports this assertion, showing email has become much less disruptive in the workplace, accounting for about 75 hours of distraction each year, down from 99 hours in 2020.

Dom Price, work futurist at Atlassian, believes there’ll always be distractions but it’s how we deal with them that matters. “As leaders of teams, the question becomes how we build discipline around how we invest our time because that’s our scarcest resource – how I’m going to indulge and when I’m going to indulge.”

Hybrid working: The demand to be seen as “always on”'

One of the negative impacts of workplace apps, according to Cowdroy, is the pressure employees feel to be “always on”. He cites Dutch research that found workers have engaged in “voluntary ‘visibilising’ practices” since the rise of hybrid working. “What that means is that when we’re working from home, we’re voluntarily making ourselves look visible to our team, responding to all the messages straightaway to show that we’re constantly on.”

Cowdroy, who has worked with Aēsop, Tennis Australia and Blackmores on productivity, suggests companies create a communications manifesto. “It’s a document that outlines how we communicate as a team or organisation. It outlines what tools we’re going to use for what things, plus other guidelines, such as expectation of response times.”

Atlassian follows a similar model called the Work Agreements Play. “It’s basically how we’re going to work together,” says Price. “The first thing we do as part of a team exercise is My User Manual. We write our communication channels and meeting cadence, what the meetings are for and who attends. After 30 days and 60 days we review how we’re working.”

The User Manual also outlines when to use the different modes of contact, such as Slack, emails and Trello. “We set up boundaries such as, ‘In this time I do my deep work and in this time I do my team work,’” says Price. “When you do that, you’ve taken away those distractions by saying, ‘Here’s how we’ve collectively agreed to work as a team.’ Too often, we don’t do that explicitly – we just assume it and fill in the gaps.”

Productive spaces: Remote work versus the office

Home office

Even before the pandemic, Cisco – which has been named Australia’s Best Workplace for the past four years in the Great Place to Work study – had a flexible work environment, urging its staff to do their jobs where they were most productive. “In our recent internal survey, 93 per cent of people said they want to come back to the office but they wanted to come back to a different experience than we traditionally had in the office environment,” says Dawson.

“There’s less appetite to come into the office to sit at a desk for an extended period of time and do administrative-style work – people feel they’re more productive away from the office doing that. What they do want to experience is the ability to socialise, collaborate and innovate together.” Dawson suggests that in order for workplaces to “be a magnet not a mandate”, organisations need to create more collaborative spaces and “more opportunities for serendipitous ad hoc conversations”.

Switching between boss brain and worker mode

It’s a reality of working life – meeting stacking means that there’s often not enough time in between gatherings to do any meaningful work or even grab a cup of coffee. This is something the team at Carman’s is focused on fixing. “We’re working on shorter meeting times and not presuming that all meetings have to be an hour,” says Creswell. “If there are more than eight people, one person should stand and deliver the meeting – it’s not an open discussion.”

Cowdroy advises being prepared so if you do have 10 minutes between meetings you’re ready to use it mindfully. “We talk about ‘boss brain’ and ‘worker brain’. We suggest our clients use a daily checklist to plan their time at the start of the day. We call this ‘boss thinking’. It’s a good idea to write down a few tasks that might only take 10 minutes. When we’re in ‘worker brain’, we’re not as empowered to think clearly about what we should do with that time.”

Making the most of a blended environment

“We estimate, in the long-term, 98 per cent of all business meetings will have at least one remote participant,” says Dawson. It’s essential then that tech is optimised to make the gatherings productive. “We want to ensure that whether you’re in the office or remote, there’s a consistent and stimulating experience for all people involved. ”

Meeting optimisation is also a target at Carman’s. “If one person is on Teams, we try for everyone to be on Teams,” says Creswell. “One person on video doesn’t have the same gravitas as being in the room so it’s important for the meeting owner to decide if we’re all on Teams or we’re all in a room.”

The power of subtraction, not addition


The Economic Impact report found managers consider 27 per cent of their meetings to be unproductive. At Carman’s the solution for this has ironically been… another meeting. “Our whole company gets on a 10-minute meeting every day at 9am,” says Creswell. “If you need to blast a message to everyone, this is our favourite forum for doing it. It would stop hundreds of emails a day.”

Price recomments doing a regular meeting audit to stop unwanted diary entries. “One of the things I’ve been learning is the power of subtraction: if we want to be more effective we need to start with subtraction, not addition. [Traditionally] we only add meetings – we never subtract them. It’s the same with chat apps – we added chat but we didn’t remove email or anything else. So we’ve come up with this little exercise: before we add anything in, what’s the thing we’re taking out? Because we’re all at capacity. “Basically, there are now three types of meetings: kill, tweak or keep. I don’t mind sharing this – I actually saved 15 hours a week the first time we did the exercise. I do the ritual every six months where I cull meetings.”

The future: Where will the next distractions come from?

At Atlassian, Price is tasked with understanding what the future of work will look like. He doesn’t anticipate there’ll be fewer distractions but rather that they’ll come from new technologies.

“The next thing is going to be volume,” he says. “With ChatGPT and OpenAI, there’s the ability to create more and more content. Our ability to produce content has gone through the roof but our ability to consume that content hasn’t gone through the roof.”

For business leaders this may lead to decision paralysis. “If you press a button and get 100 data points, you’re going to be paralysed and not able to make a decision. We have to be careful that we don’t let the volume of content slow us down.”

The case for unproductivity: Supporting creative thinking

Price and Dawson both agree that while productivity is important, there also has to be a definitive place for creative thinking. “We need to give our brains a chance to see things other than the obvious,” says Price. “In the pursuit of productivity, we’re stopping that moment where we let our brains be creative. Sometimes we just need to explore and experiment.”

“I used to get uncomfortable about the idea that ‘I haven’t changed the world in the past two hours,’” adds Dawson. “As I get older, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that my day will involve some moments of incredibly high output and decisive, rapid decision-making but I can also have moments where I’m not productive.

“It’s a balance through the day or week. Productivity is a long game – you might get days where people are less productive but ultimately we invest in people for the long-term.”

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SEE ALSO: How to Drive Motivation, Innovation and Success in a Hybrid Workplace

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