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Social media, texts, surfing ’net curb employee production, yet experts say a total crackdown is harmful, impossible

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PHOTO/RYAN HULVAT
Curt Steinhorst of Texas, an expert on digital distractions, was the keynote speaker last month at the annual iXchange event at Lehigh University held by Ben Franklin Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
PHOTO/RYAN HULVAT Curt Steinhorst of Texas, an expert on digital distractions, was the keynote speaker last month at the annual iXchange event at Lehigh University held by Ben Franklin Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Meetings are over for the day, and it’s starting to look like a relatively stress-free midafternoon on a hump day leading into a holiday weekend. As you settle in to your desk, your smartphone buzzes with an incoming text message.

“Remember to pick up beer for the Memorial Day picnic before the Friday rush.”

You answer it and notice a few headlines flashing with ballgame scores and news flashes. No real project coming due, so what the heck, why not click in for a closer look at the information.

It’s also hard to miss the waiting notifications for new messages on your social media channels. May as well respond to those, too. Checking Instagram, too, but “for just a minute.” And why not see what everyone is talking about on Twitter.

Before you know it, it’s past 5 p.m. and you wonder where the time went.

That’s the way it is in the jungle of digital distractions, a netherworld of tempting information at your fingertips that can’t possibly be ignored, even at the expense of slacking off on the job.

Every day in millions of American workplaces, digital distractions such as smartphones, social media and surfing the internet curb concentration and productivity, experts say. But they also say it’s almost impossible and not good policy to completely crack down on these digital forays, and, besides, the distractions could foster workplace creativity and solutions.

“It makes for a better worker, a happier person,” David Brandes, chief information officer at Moravian College in Bethlehem, said of digital access at work.

MUST … ANSWER … NOW

According to recent data from Pew Research Center most American adults – 95 percent – own a cellphone of some kind. The share that owns smartphones is 77 percent.

Additionally, nearly three quarters of U.S. adults own desktop or laptop computers, while roughly half own tablet computers and around one in five owns an e-reader device.

“The landscape has changed to the point where everything in your digital life – all those bits and pieces – get piped through your handset now,” Brandes said. “We have this culture that predates the information age of when a phone rings, you answer it because it could be an important message.

“That culture was an unspoken thing that was carried over to the next generation – the spirit of it still exists in the digital age. If I get a text message or email or notification on my phone, I check it because it could be important.”

FRONT AND CENTER

IN YOUR MIND

That kind of existential quandary is just a gateway drug, Brandes said, noting that when you pick up your phone and look at it, you’re in your phone, a realm of endless distractions.

“You find all the things that are buzzing or waiting for a response or items you put off till later; they’re all now front and center and all there for you,” he said.

“If you were goofing off and playing a video game and then go to work and are busy for an hour and then the phone rings, you find that the game was the last thing you were doing.”

25 PERCENT OF WORK TIME

More than a third of millennials and Gen Z (36 percent) say they spend two hours or more checking their smartphones during the workday, according to the 2018 Workplace Distraction Report by Udemy, a global marketplace for learning and teaching online.

That adds up to at least 10 hours every week when they’re doing something outside their job responsibilities. This behavior isn’t limited to junior workers either; overall, just under two-thirds of survey respondents (62 percent) said they spend about an hour per day looking at their phones.

It’s unrealistic to think anyone works a full eight-hour day anymore with all of the distractions clamoring for attention. Still, Brandes thinks it’s healthy for knowledgeable workers to be engaged in non-task-oriented activities.

“If you don’t have time to explore and go down those rabbit holes, and you’re just getting machine-gunned by tasks, you’re stifling that potential creativity,” he said.

INSPIRING IDEAS

Indeed, it’s important to recognize that what some may classify as distractions aren’t always that at all, said Curt Steinhorst of Texas, a writer and leading voice on strategic communications in the age of distraction. He was the keynote speaker last month at the annual iXchange event at Lehigh University held by Ben Franklin Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

“If we are clear about our intentions, even browsing Instagram can be a productive endeavor,” he said in an interview. “Also, we need to remember that the things we tend to call distractions are also connected to our creative centers.

“Sometimes, we need to play around with our tools and processes to discover new and better ideas. Play and creativity lead to new and better ideas.”

ISSUE OF ENGAGEMENT

Existing workplace culture overemphasizes machine-like productivity; input to output efficiency ends up being “a race against the robots,” Steinhorst said.

“The problem is two-fold: First, it’s a race we can’t win – machines will only get better at machine stuff, and we fall behind,” he said. “But the deeper issue is that by focusing on our machine-like qualities, we end up devaluing our human qualities.”

A true distraction is usually an indication that communication about priorities and goals has not been clear, Steinhorst said.

“This affects more than just concentration and productivity,” he said. “It also affects how engaged our employees are and how much purpose and meaning our employees end up finding.”

AFFECTING PERFORMANCE

It’s almost impossible to forbid interaction with digital distractions at work, said Meloney Sallie-Dosunmu, founder and president of Precision Talent International in Allentown.

“We have to give people opportunities to continue to remain connected, which may mean using their cellphone during breaks, checking their Facebook account during lunch, things like that,” she said. “But I think it should be limited to break times and lunch times, even for those who are on salary.

“The first time performance is impacted, someone is unavailable because they are focused on a digital distraction, or when goals are not being met because people are wasting time, that’s when it’s too much.”

THE PHONE DOMINATES

Digital distractions negatively affect employee concentration and productivity, and it’s not uncommon to see people walking around looking at their phones, oblivious to their surroundings, Sallie-Dosunmu said.

“You see them in meetings with the phone under the table. When it is their … time to contribute, sometimes they don’t even know what’s going on around them and need to be brought back up to speed,” she said.

“You also see a lot in virtual meetings. Someone will be in a meeting online or on a conference call, and they are checking their email during the course of the meeting,” Sallie-Dosunmu said. “They get nothing out of the meeting. Their attention is focused on the distraction and not the issue at hand.”

DOING WHAT’S REASONABLE

Organizations need to adopt strong policies around the use of personal devices and the accessing of social media at work, she said.

“I don’t think it should be completely forbidden, but there should be parameters around it,” she said. “Break times, lunchtime, free time – those are the times when people should have access to be able to interact with their digital life. But organizations have to do some type of monitoring to enforce the policies.”

Sallie-Dosunmu doesn’t condone using human resources police and prefers hiring competent professionals who will do what’s reasonable.

“If you have reason to suspect someone is abusing time, rather it be with digital distractions, excessive smoke breaks or any other inappropriate reason, they need to be monitored,” she said. “But I don’t think organizations have the time or resources to try to track every single employee and how they use their computer. I don’t think that’s a good use of resources.”

DEEPER ISSUE

Steinhorst said cracking down on distractions is almost certainly the wrong way to look at the problem.

“If your team is struggling with distractions, it’s probably not because they arrived at work looking for ways to irritate you,” he said. “More than likely, they are just unclear about the priorities. Over and over again, with businesses in all industries, we find that team members are exponentially more focused at work when they understand the why.

“We have to get better at the leadership level at connecting the work we do with the positive outcomes we create in the world. We have to put aside the notion that the simple solution is just ‘put away your phone.’ It’s honestly so much deeper than that.”

PURPOSE IN THE MOMENT

Brandes advised companies to be data-driven when considering employees’ attention deficits.

“Don’t spin up a project just because you think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “You might think that people are wasting time just because that’s your perception. But if you spend $1 million on a piece of software to stop that waste of time, then you may find they weren’t wasting a million dollars’ worth of time, after all. Too often, people make that kind of broad-brush mistake.”

Attention is all about assigning value in a given moment, so distraction is really just confusion about what’s important, Steinhorst said.

“Digital or not, the most important thing we can do to curb distraction is to reorient our understanding of purpose in that moment,” he said. “If we are clear about our intentions, even browsing Instagram can be a productive endeavor.”

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