By Kate Pierson
When someone’s accused of being distracted, it’s usually done with a negative connotation. Deemed the arch nemesis of employers and the antithesis of productivity, a distraction is considered a monopoliser of time and only leads employees astray.
Aligned with the practice of procrastination, distraction in the form of objects, people, or practices that induce wandering eyes and minds, are considered breeders of bad habits.
Not helping is that the digital age has delivered distractions like never before and the ensuing war to eliminate distractions from the workplace, with the front line being filters, blocks and bans, has led to one definitive conclusion — distractions are a bad influence. But are they?
Are distractions really the workplace pest employers make them out to be? Or are some distractions the essential path to creativity; a subconscious reboot before another burst of inspiration?
Some would argue it all depends on the job and that quantity driven positions, like data entry that demand a consistent pace for maximum results, are an entirely different ball game to creative vocations like writing or graphic design that require time for brainstorming and reflection.
A survey released by Australian Recruitment Firm Robert Walters has outlined the top five office distractions that disrupt the harmony of a productive workforce. In association with organisational psychologist Michael O’Driscoll, we’ve dissected these distractions and elaborated on them further, exploring the pros and cons.
Of the gathering interest in this topic, O’Driscoll says “There does appear to be greater pressure at work these days and a greater need for efficiency and effectiveness. This is happening at the organisational level and obviously filters down to the individual level. Put simply, organisations need to be more productive and efficient in order to survive and hence they require their employees to ‘up their game.’
“I suspect the ‘distractions’ mentioned in this survey have always been considered a problem, although obviously the technology related ones are more recent. But perhaps now they are perceived to be an even greater problem because of the need for higher productivity and efficiency.”
Ultimately, O’Driscoll says it is important to enable individuals to exercise a degree of autonomy and control over their work time and efforts to encourage people to feel engaged with their work and take ‘ownership’ of their job performance.
“Excessive monitoring and rules can lead to feelings of disengagement from work and ultimately alienation. The issue is how much personal control is appropriate, given the roles and responsibilities of the individual,” he explains.
Personal emails and internet browsing
Some employers view workplace resources such as email and internet to be a necessary evil. They harbour concern these modes of interaction and communication may be abused and promote time wasting instead of being treated as a professional tool and, perhaps, privilege.
Other employers understand the key to a consistent work ethic means ‘everything in moderation’ and therefore have more relaxed rules around personal use of these mediums. O’Driscoll says there is even some evidence that cyber-loafing such as surfing the net can actually be beneficial for workers. “As long as it is not excessive, it might give them a break from a monotonous or tedious task they are performing,” he says.
Smoking campaigns have rendered this habit an unhealthy one and, according to the Australian distractions survey, the consumption of nicotine in the workplace is considered detrimental not only to the health of the employee but also to the health of the organisation they work for.
Some would argue that smoking and the choice to smoke is a fundamental right. And while there is no direct correlation between the act of smoking itself and enhanced or decreased productivity, some might argue that smoking breaks interrupt the momentum of an employee’s progress, while others would say prohibiting sporadic ‘smokos’ will result in increased stress and broken concentration.
Personal calls and text messages
In today’s technological climate, the presence of personal communication devices in the workplace is an inevitability. There’s no right or wrong verdict on this ‘distraction,’ because how appropriate it is to be sending or receiving messages or making personal calls at work depends on the nature of the business and its personal views on the matter.
Social networking websites
These have an addictive quality and while many companies have implemented bans on social networking websites, other organisations are embracing them as a way to communicate with consumers.
It’s difficult to definitively adjudicate whether an employee’s use of a particular social networking domain is detrimental to their productivity and again the appropriateness of them doing this during work hours depends on the views of the organisation.
If a company benefits from an online presence, having staff interact with consumers via these digital environments may be a bonus.
But for an organisation that thrives on concentration and consistency may find productivity and an uninhibited access to the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Bebo, just don’t mix.
Talkative chatterbox colleagues
If compatible personalities co-exist in an open plan office, chances are the discourse in the workplace will at times stray from the professional dialogue fostered and expected by the employer.
Furthermore, there’s a fine line between positive social interaction and unproductive conversation.
“Talking with one’s colleagues fulfils important social needs, as well as possibly conveying important job-related information, but excessive chatter might be dysfunctional,” O’Driscoll comments.
“For instance, at work there is sometimes a belief that too much informal interaction with work colleagues can distract a person from focusing on their actual specific work tasks.
“Sometimes, however, a distraction can be beneficial.”