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June 7, 2011 / Mervyn Dinnen

Is Technology Driving Us To Distraction?

A recent survey from harmon.ie, the social e-mail and collaboration software company, looked into workplace interruptions and found that 57% are digitally derived. This was a wide ranging classification covering everything from processing e-mails to Facebook and personal web searches, but as a headline finding it got many in the media (social and traditional) excitedly pointing the figure at social networking.

To put into context, these workplace interruptions lead to over half of us losing an hour or more a day, which in turn costs businesses £3,277.50 a year per employee.

I downloaded the full survey (it’s free, you can do it here) and found that for all the furore over social networking wasting our time only 9% of people felt ‘Facebook and personal webs searches’ were a distraction.

So putting aside distinctions between digital, electronic and traditional, what actions cause the bulk of distractions? Which tool really is the baddie?

Guess what…it’s the PHONE!

Yep 28% of us find the phone to be the biggest cause of interruption. And number 2? E-mail, of course! Another 23% of us find our working day interrupted dealing with e-mail.

Now if you add in ‘talking to colleagues’ (10%) and ‘ad-hoc internal meetings’ (5%) we get a staggering 66% – two thirds of all workplace interruptions caused by communication and organisational inefficiencies.

Here’s an idea…let’s not ban social media, let’s ban the phone, e-mail and internal meetings!

Continuing with the report there were some interesting stats on how these interruptions lead to us having difficulty working and also affect our ability to be productive. On top of the cost element of lost time, many reported information overload, missed deadlines, lost business and conflicts with colleagues, all in turn probably leading to greater loss of revenue and confidence.

We’re getting ruder too! Two thirds of us ‘tune out’ of in-person meetings to answer mobiles, send texts, check e-mails or update.

Despite all of this there’s one thing that seems to drive us to distraction more than anything else. Searching for documents!

We spend 30 minutes a day looking for documents. That’s 16 days a year. Almost as much as our holiday allowances.

Where are these missing documents? Well 76% of us spend the time searching our e-mail inboxes, following that our desktop and then file server or shared workspace.

It seems that we each e-mail 2 or more documents a day to an average of 5 people, effectively creating 10 new documents each day, which get stored across multiple locations, with a lot of us leaving them in our e-mail inboxes.

So what are companies doing to try and minimise these distractions and boost productivity?

The vast majority are introducing practices to ease the e-mail/phone distractions including:

  • Reading e-mails in batches
  • Disconnecting from phone/e-mail alerts for a few hours a day
  • Initiating working outside the office
  • And there’s also a No e-mail Friday!

As for actual policies? Well about 50% of businesses are blocking access to social media networks.

With most lost time down to phone, e-mail, meetings and poor use of the storage facilities that technology allows us, I think it’s quite possible that those businesses are looking in the wrong place to make savings and boost productivity.

What distracts you most, and what policies/strategies are you using to deal with them?

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8 Comments

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  1. Jon / Jun 7 2011 12:28 PM

    Here is a slightly different perspective on distraction as it relates to my job, where I’d argue that there is real value in distraction. As an Internal Communications specialist, distraction is an essential part of my day to day existence and because of it I can add value. For every email, telephone call, Yammer appeal, blog comment, IM request etc, the faster I can bash through someone else’s blockage, the quicker they can continue to make money for the company.

    Reducing the corporate fat and friction is a very real part of Internal Communications and to do this effectively I need to be constantly available for distraction. Closing down any of these channels will not help those in my organisation to find the stuff they need to increase their own productivity.

    So in answer to your question, what distracts me most are those within an organisation whose role is essentially customer service and they don’t realise it. I’m talking about where the customer is a colleague and providing them with a great service allows them in turn to provide an even better service to our real customers. But rather than deliver this great service they continue to ignore the ringing telephone, not respond to urgent emails and insist that social media has no place in the workplace because it is distracting.

  2. David Goddin / Jun 7 2011 6:58 PM

    I’d say our use of technology is the culprit rather than the technology itself – a poor craftsman blames his tools!

    There are some good reasons why this distraction happens rooted in evolutionary psychology which Ian Price details in his book “The Activity Illusion”. It’s worth picking up a copy.

    I find that having time when there is no email/Twitter is easily the best remedy. It also means that I’m more attentive when I do review email and tweet.

  3. Hung Lee / Jun 7 2011 8:46 PM

    The argument is clear for decentralization of the workforce – a great deal of these ‘interrupts’ would simply disappear if you allowed staff to work from home. Especially those pointless management meetings. Throw in the hours the hours staff won’t have to commute and you’ll get a serious increase in productivity, regardless of the volume of social media exchange buzzing around.

  4. Doug Shaw / Jun 8 2011 8:08 AM

    Noooooooo – not the phone, please ban anything but that! Actually my number one fave is face to face conversation but if that’s not possible – talk. Email – yuccch – too often a substitute for conversation which spirals rapidly into unpleasant arse covering activities. I’m with Jon – I can’t live without distraction 🙂 And though I agree with Hung that flexible/home working has a useful place – it’s not the cure. Part of work is….social – we are a community, and I don’t think we were built to work in isolation.

  5. Damon Lenszner / Jun 8 2011 11:10 PM

    We have barred social media sites during working hours. There is absolutely no justification for people in IT, Accounts or Sales being on Facebook or Twitter when they should be working. people are paid to do ajob, playing on social networking sites is not part of that job.

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