Do you ever have days where you keep getting distracted at work? How about every three minutes?

Studies from researcher Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine have found that the average office worker is interrupted (or self-interrupts) as many as 20 times per hour! While this figure seems high (but not unbelievable), the impact on our days is even worse. Once interrupted by noise, someone walking by, or an instant message window popping up, it takes many of us 23 minutes to get back on track with the original task. With this math, it's a wonder we get anything done.

Segment, a Silicon Valley start-up, wasn't immune to this pervasive problem. But unlike the many other businesses that struggle with employee distraction, they decided to actually do something about it.

Segment is a data management and analytics company that aggregates data coming from customer resource management, payment systems, and websites to use with their customer's analytics tools. They also help customers make sense of the waves of data that roll in each day by organizing and categorizing it into more intuitive, useful pieces. Segment recognizes that we're living in a data-driven world, and is helping businesses get smarter about how to use the information around them.

In addition to their data management work, Segment has made it a priority to be thoughtful about how they approach people issues at work. To make sure they're aware of any concerns or challenges facing employees, they regularly survey staff to understand better how they're feeling about their jobs. Through these survey results, they were finding that noise and visual distractions were a significant concern among staff.

These distractions were due in large part to the layout of Segment's office. Like many companies presented with the opportunity to create their space from scratch, Segment had embraced the trend in open workspaces when designing their office several years ago. Open workspaces had become popular because of visual appeal, as well as, the perceived benefits of collaboration and teamwork. The belief was that low or non-existent walls and glass enclosed conference spaces helped spark creative, innovative thinking.

While these are great design concepts, when employees started reporting that they were struggling to get work done, the Segment leadership team took notice. The noise level and near-constant visual distractions had become too much for some staff--especially those with roles such as engineering and analysis that required intense concentration for periods of time.

"Some employees indicated that it was difficult for them to get work done because the workspace was too loud," said Adriana Roche, Segment's Vice President of Human Resources. To find workarounds, employees were requesting more time away from the office because they felt more productive working from home. While Segment leadership is open to flexible work arrangements, they also wanted to address the issue in the office head-on and fix the office noise and distractions to make it the best possible work environment. Creating a space where everyone could work productively was important to their bottom line, but also to the collaborative, close-knit culture they wanted to cultivate.

Faced with this problem, Segment's management could have done nothing -- which is what most offices do in response to this distraction issue. Or they could have put walls up to create a cube farm, cutting down on noise and visual distraction. Instead, they opted for a more data-driven solution.

In keeping with their roots, Segment's CEO Peter Reinhardt developed an app over a weekend to collect data on noise levels. He installed the app on several iPads around the office, then used those iPads to measure noise throughout the workday. After gathering sufficient data, the leadership team got together to analyze the results. What surprised them was that there were areas of the office that were less noisy than others. This observation was not immediately obvious while working in the space, where the hum seemed to be spread evenly around.

Realizing that they had these quiet pockets led to an idea. What if they rearranged staff according to their role and preference for a noisy versus quiet work environment?

With minimal changes, these naturally less noisy spaces were designated as quiet zones. Staff with a preference for working in quieter areas were given the option to move- which they did. Staff who weren't bothered by the noise (yes, I'm looking at you, marketing and communications) could congregate in the noisy areas without feeling like they always had to keep their voices down.

Then, the Segment leadership team went a step further. They were reminded that noise wasn't their only problem-employees had also complained about visual distractions. So the staff who were bothered by movement around the office space were given large plants to help reduce the distractions. "In some areas of the office," Adriana said, "the place looks like a jungle. It's more beautiful and helps those employees get more done. And this is not to mention the added benefit of improved indoor air quality."

The result? Adriana has since held some follow-up conversations with staff to gather feedback on their solution. Overwhelmingly, people reported that they liked the new arrangement and felt immediately more productive. Staff members also said that they appreciated Segment's approach to both surveying employees, listening to them, collecting additional data, and then implementing the most appropriate solution.

Sometimes managers attempt to solve problems based on their limited experience or intuition and end up not solving the problem at all or even making it worse. The key lesson to take away from Segment's innovative problem solving is less about the noise levels and more about the value of listening to employees, making a sincere effort to solve the problems they identify, and integrating additional data into the approach. Combining employee feedback with data is an excellent way to ensure that you're solving the right problem the right way.

Published on: Oct 18, 2016