Interruptions and distractions are an unfortunate reality of life — and work. When it’s your husband intruding on your reality TV marathon or a friend startling you with a phone call in the middle of a good book, the stakes aren’t that high. But it’s different at work when a co-worker inadvertently throws your laser-like focus off by asking an innocent question or a manager calls for an impromptu meeting when you’re building momentum on a project. I recently watched a TED talk by Jason Fried, a software entrepreneur and co-founder of 37signals and co-author of “Rework.” His theory is that today’s office setting isn’t conducive for employees to do their best work because it’s prone to unlimited distractions and interruptions.
People are trading in their work day for work moments –15 minutes here, 30 minutes there and you’re pulled here, then you got another 20 minutes, then it’s lunch, then you got another 15 minutes, then someone pulls you aside and asks you this question and before you know it it’s 5 p.m. And then you look back on your day and realize you really didn’t get anything done. — Jason Fried
So what do employees need to be able to get meaningful work done, instead of merely crossing tasks off their to-do lists?
You can’t ask somebody to be creative in 15 minutes. You may have an idea, but to really think deeply about a problem carefully, you need long stretches of uninterrupted time. — Jason Fried
Tips to Boost Employee Productivity at Work
Here are three suggestions Fried offered up to employers and managers:
- Set aside distraction-free work times. Fried advocates for managers to allow employees to block off at least one four-hour stretch of uninterrupted time per week. During this time, employees shouldn’t be allowed to talk to — and thereby interrupt — others. Interestingly, my own team at CareerBuilder has a version of this that we call “flag time.” Basically, we are allowed up to two-hour stretches of time per day when we can put up a little flag at our desks, signaling to others that we are off limits in terms of communication — unless it’s an emergency. During this time we are allowed to go into a conference room or break room or coffee shop or any place that inspires us to do our best work free of interruptions. It’s only been a few weeks since it went into effect, but I have personally found my “flag time” makes me more productive and creative since I’m able to give my undivided thought and attention to the project I’m working on.
- Find more efficient ways to communicate. Fried, for example, advocates for emails, IMs and other collaboration tools at work in lieu of daily face-to-face interactions. He says this allows employees to respond at their convenience — and not necessarily immediately if they’re engrossed in work. This approach may vary from one organization to the next, but the bottom line is to consult team members on what works best for them.
- Cancel meetings that aren’t absolutely necessary. We’ve all been there — you’re deep in thought working on a project when you’re forced to hit the pause button and head into yet another meeting. Fried says: “Meetings are toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work… One meeting tends to lead to another meeting which tends to lead to another meeting.” He advocates for only the necessary parties, usually two or three people, to discuss and resolve matters quickly. While I agree with his latter sentiment — that only individuals who are absolutely necessary should be present so that you’re not wasting anyone’s time, I don’t agree that all or even most meetings are pointless or poisonous. However, it should go without saying that the meeting planner should have an agenda along with expected outcomes to ensure that the meeting is worth the participants’ time.
Why should you care?
You do want your employees to do great work and make meaningful contributions, right? Then take a look at this analogy between sleep and work, and you’ll (hopefully) never look at productivity the same way again:
“Sleep and work are closely related. Sleep and work are phase- or stage-based events. In order to get to the deep ones, you have to go through the other ones. And if you’re interrupted while you’re going through the early ones, you don’t just pick up where you left off. You have to go back some stages and start again. Do you expect people to sleep well if they’re interrupted all night? Nope. So why would you expect people to work well if they’re being interrupted all day at the office?” — Jason Fried
Check out the entire TED talk here: Tell us in the comments below or tweet at @CBforEmployers: How do you provide a distraction-free zone to employees at your organization? Think you’re inspired to try one of the tips mentioned above?