Focus is often a matter of physical wellness and preparation. You can make sure to get enough rest or plan to have some white noise or music tracks available to listen to, for example. But a new survey by online learning company Udemy shows that distractions at work typically turn focus into an elusive great white whale.

Distraction is the unfortunate norm

According to Udemy's survey, nearly 3 out of 4 workers (70 percent) admit they feel distracted when they're on the job, with 16 percent asserting that they're almost always distracted. The problem is biggest for Millennials and Gen Zers, with 74 percent reporting feeling distracted.

What's making it so hard to maintain attention

Some of the problem likely comes from the workspace itself, with many companies lacking truly private areas for employees. Employees also sometimes violate boundaries, too, coming into work areas or sending messages. In fact, 80 percent of those surveyed cited chatty coworkers and office noise as top distractions. But importantly, over half (60 percent) said they view meetings as just another interruption, too. And that's before you factor in technology like smartphones and any personal dilemmas workers might be struggling to handle.

What happens for businesses and employees when distractions run wild

As you might expect, all that distraction can have a serious effect on the company's bottom line, as Darren Shimkus, General Manager for Udemy for Business, explains.

"One of the most shocking findings that we uncovered was that 34% of employees like their jobs less when they find themselves in a distracting workplace and 66% of workers have never discussed solutions to address workplace distraction with their managers. When workplace distractions are reduced, whether through training or policies, we found that 75% of employees are more productive, 57% have increased motivation, and 49% are overall happier at work. These statistics are further supported by findings from a UC Irvine study that show "people compensate for interruptions by working faster, but this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort. In addition to the negative emotional impacts on employees, businesses also feel the consequences since even the briefest interruptions can double a worker's error rate."

Heather Myers, Chief Psychology Officer for personality science company Traitify, adds that the decreased productivity that comes with distraction can lead to negative affect (emotions), and that suppressing those negative emotions can negatively influence workers' health. And if workers aren't talking to their bosses, the odds are lower that they'll collaboratively come up with solutions, causing the situation only to worsen over time. Workers also might come to resent not only others who distract them, but also the managers who create the culture where workers don't feel comfortable bringing up the issue.

So if the problem is so huge, why aren't workers talking about it?

Myers has two big theories about why workers don't speak up.

The value of collaboration and teamwork--"Many corporate cultures value discussion among employees and working together, so asking for others to be quiet or for an isolated place to work can feel like it runs counter to the culture the company is trying to build. [...] No employee is likely to talk to their manager if they are being distracted by social media or emails from coworkers for fear of not being seen as a team player."

Uncertainty of what to do or how to do it--Workers might not go to managers with questions because they don't want to be seen as incompetent or inattentive, or because they're worried managers won't like the results of their work. Without help, they're more likely to succumb to the distractions.

How to bring back focus

Because of the environmental and cultural issues attached to workplace distraction, Myers asserts that leaders might do well to rethink their hyperfocus on teamwork and collaborative design.

"I think that employers might need to realize that, while it is true that a culture of collaboration is key for success, it can also be counterproductive. If companies also put effort into creating quiet zones for employees to use when they simply need to get something done on their own or in a small group, I think they would see increased productivity and happier employees!"

Shimkus also points out that 70 percent of the survey respondents said training could help them block out distractions and focus at work. Based on this finding, leaders might be able to help simply by fostering open communication and a learning culture across the entire company. Workers have to feel comfortable getting tools, insights and soft skills that are useful for maintaining good attention, and by offering the specific programs, employers can send the clear message that it's OK to admit what's happening and communicate about it. Managers should feel comfortable bringing up the topic first and asking about distractions directly, too.

"The good news for businesses is that, at the end of the day, employees want to be focused, productive and engaged," Shimkus says. "[...] There is undoubtedly a hunger from workers to block distractions, and we have a responsibility to offer the support they need to get there."

Published on: Mar 22, 2018