Manage Distracted Employees

Distractions may be sapping productivity – and the employee may be the victim rather than the problem

by Marty Martin, Psy.D.

management_0214As all managers know, workday distractions are everywhere, stealing employees’ precious time and productivity. Between new technologies that beg for people’s attention to the prevalence of shortened attention spans, everyone on your team has the opportunity to be more distracted today than in the past. Of course, being distracted at work creates numerous problems, from missed opportunities to strained business relationships. Therefore, you need to effectively manage your employees so their distractions are minimized.

First, realize that there are two categories of distraction. One is internal distraction, and the other is external distraction. Internal distractions include any physiological, emotional, attitudinal, biological or physical discomfort. Some examples include having an upset stomach or a headache, worrying about a personal or professional matter, feeling overwhelmed with tasks, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, experiencing anger toward a co-worker and grieving a loss. Any of these things can quickly take an employee off track from his or her tasks.

External distractions include other people and technology. Some examples include co-workers who stop by someone’s office to chat, social media and text alerts ringing on a smart phone, email notifications popping up on a computer screen, and other employees who talk loudly in the office. These seemingly innocuous items easily divert people’s attention.

The real problem is, most employees aren’t experiencing just one or two of these distractions. They’re facing multiple distractions each day. Consider this common scenario: A customer service representative is responsible for telephone, email and chat communications. When a customer calls in, the rep has scripts to follow for each scenario. In addition to working from the memorized scripts, she is also instant messaging with customers and answering emails. In fact, her computer screen is divided into quarters: One quadrant has the details of the caller on the phone, and the other three quadrants are active chats she’s engaging in simultaneously. She’s also in an office space where the physical difference between her and the next customer service representative may be five to eight feet. Even though she’s wearing a headset, she can still hear the other reps talking. The person to her right likes to stand while he talks, so that visually distracts her. The chair she is sitting on is old and uncomfortable. And because the company is trying to save money, they have the thermostat set to 80 degrees in the middle of summer. The distractions seem never-ending!

On top of all the internal and external distractions, organizational structures have changed over the years, packing in more duties and responsibilities to every job description. That means employees today have to spread their attention thin just to complete their expected workload. With all of these factors, it’s no wonder so many people feel distracted at work.

Fortunately, most distractions can be eliminated from the workplace, if supervisors take the time to manage them. Here’s how.

Design or redesign a job from a distractibility point of view. When a manager has a distracted employee, it’s natural to blame the person and say things like, “He’s not a team player,” “She’s not motivated” or “He doesn’t work well here.” The manager may even reprimand the individual for poor performance. But before going that route, it’s worth taking a good look at the job and environment to see if it is making the employee distracted.

In other words, the manager should look at the job from a distractibility point of view. What are the job duties, both the ones explicitly stated in the job description and the ones that person just always seems to do? What’s the working environment like? What visual or auditory distraction triggers are present? How is the office set up? How are the lighting, the chair and the desk layout? What other factors impact the employee’s efficiency, effectiveness and performance?

Realize that if the work environment and the job are poorly designed, the company will continue to bring in highly talented individuals who will not do well — not because of them, but because of the bad job design. Therefore, before reprimanding, analyze! What you find may surprise you.

Create a Distraction Elimination Plan for distracted employees. Think back to your elementary school days. You likely had a few kids in the class who always bothered others, threw spit balls or just stared out the window for hours. What did the teacher do? She had a plan. If the kids were disruptive to the class, she’d move them up front near her. If they were window gazers, she’d orient their desk so they could no longer see the window. No matter what the disruptive behavior, she knew what to do because she had a plan in mind for it.

Good managers do the same. They sit down with the distracted employee and, together, create a Distraction Elimination Plan (DEP). By working together, they may decide on some physical changes in the office that can help, such as moving to a new cubicle or changing the lighting, or they may figure out some strategies the employee can use to maintain focus, such as not having an email program always open or disabling smartphone alerts.

The great thing about a plan is that it gives the manager something concrete to reference and use as a benchmark to gauge progress. Additionally, all organizations have risk management plans, strategic plans, operational plans and business plans — so why not also have distraction elimination plans? Remember, distractions rarely self-resolve. So the better the plan, the better the results.

Offer other resources when needed. Sometimes, even with the manager’s help and a solid DEP in place, the employee is still distracted. In these cases, the manager has to know when to offer additional resources. If the organization has an employee assistance program, the manager may want to consider making a recommendation to an appropriate resource or service.

If the organization does not have an employee assistance program, the manager can present the idea of additional help in a supportive and neutral fashion — even suggesting it as a step in the DEP, as in, “If the outlined steps in this plan don’t resolve the issue, then the employee will seek outside assistance in the form of a counselor or therapist.” The key is to help the employee find the needed resources in order to determine if his situation is more serious than simple distractions.

If an employee seems to be underperforming, instead of immediately reprimanding him, the manager may find a more effective solution by taking the time to determine if there’s something the company can do to remove distractions from the workplace. Distractions don’t have to be a major part of the workday, and managers have the opportunity to help minimize them. Remember, the fewer distractions people have, the more productive they’ll be.

Marty Martin, Psy.D., known for his state-of-the art content presented in an engaging, dynamic fashion, has been speaking and training nationally and internationally for many years. His book, Taming Disruptive Behavior, was recently published by The American College of Physician Executives. Dr. Martin is the director of the Health Sector Management MBA concentration and associate professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago. 

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