Implementing smartphone and technology policies to reduce the “distracted mind” in the workplace — for safety and productivity

Did you ever get to the end of a hard day — a day where you skipped lunch, worked late, and worked hard — but still felt as if you didn’t achieve much? 31.64% of workers, in a recent poll, admitted they were negatively distracted by technology at work. [1]

While our smartphones and computers are productivity-enhancers, they can equally be productivity-killers — with more and more missed deadlines and piles of unfinished work. In the same way that texting and phones can dangerously distract drivers, they can have the same impact on safety and productivity in some workplaces. [See video inset with “Texting and Social Media at Work: A dangerous Distraction” below.]

Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, explains [2] :

“Managers spend 85% of the day in meetings, on the phone or talking to people about work, not doing it. It’s flexible and adaptive, but conflicts with the way that the human brain operates.”

Knowledge workers typically spend less time in meetings, but no less time on the phone texting or talking. This situation is made worse by the urge to reply right away, especially since “time management experts” recommend responding right away, rather than putting in the “do later pile.”

The ideal scenario, and a good example for knowledge workers, is the medical profession. While on rounds, with patients or other critical times, a medical professional would never consider answering a text. It should be no different for any knowledge worker. Doctors and other medical practitioners typically catch up on texts during coffee breaks.

 

Medical professionals typically do not text during rounds or patient consults. Normally health workplaces have strictly enforced policies on texting and phone use during “knowledge” time. Here, medical professionals respond to texts over coffee.

 

“Media multi-taskers pay a mental price” — Standford

A Stanford study revealed that “multitaskers pay a mental price.” [3] In the study, which relied on distractions and cognitive test models, they found that those who did NOT allow media multitasking “couldn’t help thinking about the task they were doing.”

“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

This is an idea-killer for knowledge-workers. The reports point to a significant decline in creative ideas, brainstormed solutions and problem-solving abilities as teams are increasingly distracted by the incoming-message alerts on their phones.

Mashable Editor-in-Chief Lance Ulanoff, a “knowledge worker” explained: ”I do so many things that I promised myself I would never do: Work on the computer when I’m supposed to be listening to someone on the phone. Watch my tweets flow by on my laptop while someone is standing right in front of me, talking to me. And worst of all, I sometimes Tweet or text while walking on New York City’s crowded streets and avenues.” [1]

 

Text and social media distractions are serious enough in terms of academic performance that many schools ban phones in the class room. Workplaces with “knowledge workers” should consider a similar policy during key “brain time.”

 

Poll: 31.64% “distracted at work by technology.”

In a poll, “When are you most distracted by technology?” on Mashable:

  • 31.64% said they were the most distracted at work
  • 31.98% said they were “distracted all the time.”
  • Only 2 percent said they were never distracted. [See inset poll.]

From a health perspective, the distraction factor can increase stress, lengthen workdays and even create health-event triggers for some vulnerable staff members.

The ability to focus and problem-solve is a bigger issue in workplaces that rely on “knowledge work” — where our human brains are the primary resource. Any work environment that is expected to “produce new information” — ideas, concepts, solving problems (legal, accounting, sales) — should especially consider management tools that enhance “deep focus” time. No matter how brilliant your team-member, if they are distracted, ideas will not be able to flow.

“In knowledge work, the main resource is the human brain and its ability to produce new information with value,” explained Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. “But we are not good at getting a good return.” [2]

Cal Newport on Digital Detox (video):

 

 

What’s an HR Manager to do?

There are “distracted driving” and “distracted walking” laws. Some managers would like to see “distracted working” rules in the workplace. But, it can be difficult for an HR Manager (who might set policy, or have to deal with the resulting issues), or a department manager or a director, to find ways to restrict these distractions. Smartphones and texting — not to mention social media — are so pervasive in the workplace, a manager could face a protest amongst team-workers if they tried to impose restrictions, regardless of good intentions. How can a savvy HR Manager solve this growing issue in the workplace?

A partial solution lies in the automatic behaviour exhibited at important business meetings or brain-storming sessions. It is common for team members to mute their phones and resist looking at their phones during a focused meeting. No, this doesn’t mean the return to daily, lengthy meetings which can likewise rob productivity or focus. Nor, does it mean we discourage multitasking throughout the day. Clearly, we have to communicate via text, phone and social media, but the goal is to ensure there is a valuable zone of “do not disturb” space for “idea work” each day.

Brain break or “DND time.”

For knowledge workers, consider suggesting a daily “brain break.” Ask them to schedule in time for the day for pure “brain work” and productivity undisturbed. For example, from 10-12 am each day, ask them to put their mobile and desk phones on “do not disturb.” Block off that time in their calendars, even turning down meetings during this time (the time is up to their productivity curve, but suggest 2 hours a day.) When they see how much more they get done, how many deadlines they meet, and the quality of their own ideas, they will start to turn off their phones more often. For new team-members make this part of training. “We try to have a “do not disturb” time each day, at the same time each day, for pure brain work.”

Why is this important? Creatives, such as art directors and copywriters swear by “do not disturb time” as the “only time they can really work.” Busy executives who are “knowledge workers” will often claim they do their best work in the morning before coming to work. They get up at 6 am and work for two hours. They often say they get more done in this time; then they do in eight hours at work.

It is essential to let everyone know about the DND times, especially in open-concept offices, so people do tap others on the shoulder, or “shout out” for help during those times.

“Texting and Social Media at Work: A dangerous Distraction” Safety video:

It starts with recruitment.

When recruiting a “knowledge sector job,” it is crucial to ascertain not only their ability to generate valuable ideas, but also their ability to concentrate on the process and deliver. We’ve all hired those “creative geniuses” who really are A-level for ideas, but who have trouble delivering on time due to inability to focus, delegate or organize.

Asking the right screening questions can help you determine how focused the potential hire is. You can even ask a leading question, such as “Would you have a problem working in a team where there is a “do not disturb” restriction on parts of the workday designed to facilitate deep focus?”

There are also cognitive tests that can try to measure the ability to focus despite distractions. After all, aside from texting and social media, most offices today tend to be open concept and noisy. Some people can focus on their work despite the steady flow of people, phone rings and chatter; many cannot.

After recruitment, training is critical. In a production workplace, safety seminars using tools (such as the embedded video) can be valuable. In a “knowledge workplace,” coaching and one-on-one feedback are best.

Policies — and context — are critical.

Setting policy — and enforcement of policy — are essential. Realistically, it can be an HR management nightmare. Knowledge-workers especially can be negatively impacted by too much criticism. Creative workers tend to be self-starters and enablers. Regardless, it is vital to set policy and explain the reasoning for the procedures. Context is critical — present facts and rationale, alongside rules. Particularly for interns and part-time placements a policy is critical to avoid impacting productivity of the rest of the team.

 

A distracted intern at work. Distractions such as texting not only reduce producitivity time, it lowers cognitive performance.

 

In safety workplaces, strict enforcement and rules are less likely to trigger complaints. Hourly workers are also more likely to abide by regulations such as “no texting except on breaks.” Salespeople, on the other hand, will be unable to resist texting. “It may be my client.” Finding the right middle ground can make a difference. Strictness will vary depending on your work culture and your team, but be sure to cover these topics:

Guidelines for when it is appropriate to browse the internet or text — outright bans may be okay during work hours for hourly team-members, but avoid that with highly valued knowledge workers. Establish reasonable guidelines and state the reasons.
Guidelines for privacy of data and security — reminding team-members that sharing company data over unsecured internet or text may be a violation of security, particularly for creative industries or where patents are developed.

Best times for personal texting and calls. Avoid outright bans, as emergencies can happen and morale is important, but recommend the best times for texting. [For knowledge workers, see the recommendation for a “brain break.”

 

 

 

NOTES

[1] Mashable
[2] Carl Newport website>>
[3] Stanford Report: “Media multitaskers pay mental price Stanford study shows.”

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