MT Expert: Avoid workplace distractions

Distractions in the workplace, whether it's the phone ringing or people chatting loudly nearby, can be a major hindrance to productivity. Here, two experts from PA Consulting explain how to stay focussed.

by Jordan Cohen and Sylvia Clow-Wilson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Interruptions are not only annoying, they can seriously erode productivity in the workplace. The 'episodic' kind, which include phone calls, emails or more traditional distractions like chatty colleagues, are harder to avoid. Systemic interruptions are more predictable and result from a corporate preference for working in a certain way. These can include anything from performance reviews to recurrent (and possibly unnecessary) meetings.

You have varying degrees of control over both kinds of interruption depending on your role. Everyone has some control over episodic interruptions, while managers are in a better position to control systemic interruptions.
Here are a few ways to limit the effect of 'episodic' workplace distractions:

  • Set your default device settings to ‘off’.  If Instant Messenger doesn’t pop up when you’re working, and your iPhone doesn't vibrate with every new Twitter update or Words With Friends reminder,  you are less likely to use it.
  • If you receive a flood of personal emails on your work address, ask friends and family to stop using it.
  • If you are easily distracted by conversations, make sure you sit in a quiet area.
  • If you have to write a report that requires concentration, enclose yourself in a quiet space. If your office doesn’t provide this, write the report at home or even seek out an old-fashioned library.
  • Buddy up – avoid meetings by finding a colleague to give you a summary instead.

As a manager, here are a few ways that you can limit the impact of both episodic and systemic interruptions.

Episodic interruptions:

  • Take control of predictably distracting events like major sporting events. Schedule breaks for your team to follow progress together – concentrating the distraction into a limited timeframe.
  • Limit time spent on known interruptions. If you know employees are leaving the office to buy a cup of good coffee, invest in a top-of-the-line coffee machine so they don’t have to.  
  • Pro-actively manage your IT service. Slow printing and boot-up times can lead to failure but are avoidable through a more proactive approach to IT.

Systemic interruptions:

Recognise recurring business cycle interruptions, such as performance evaluation, and ease the impact on your team by blocking out space in their schedules.

Instil good meeting management principles – limit attendee numbers and duration. And don't forget to create an agenda to keep everyone on topic.  Encourage staff to attend essential meetings only.

Recognise unproductive work patterns. If your team has a culture of staying late and being ‘switched on’ 24/7 encourage them to work in a more focused way to reduce the culture of long hours.

Differentiate between creative and functional spaces. Open-plan offices are not always conducive to all types of productivity. One person's brainstorm is another person's loud, annoying hubbub. Create specific purposes for different spaces. For example, one room for quiet reflection and one for collaboration.

Jordan Cohen and Sylvia Clow-Wilson are knowledge worker productivity experts at PA Consulting Group.

Picture: BigStockPhoto

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