All of the technology tools we use today should be making us much more productive. In reality, however, many managers and teams struggle with employee engagement and productivity now more than ever because of technology. It can seem impossible to stay on top our work with the barrage of information and interruptions we're subjected to on a daily basis.
These constant interruptions are more than just an annoyance; they have a significant effect on the economy as well; according to Basex research, workplace interruptions cost the U.S. economy a staggering $588 billion every year.
That's not to say that technology tools and solutions are not helpful; in today's global workplace, such tools are a necessity. For team leaders though, the challenge is to focus on productivity and find ways to be deliberate about harnessing and leveraging technology to make it work for the team, rather than letting it hinder the team's progress.
The productivity drain
Many of us are tethered to our smartphones or laptops, and those "helpful" notifications about new inbox items or new social networking connections or posts can actually end up being not-so-helpful in terms of wasted productivity.
In a University of California at Irvine study, researchers found that a typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes and five seconds, on average. This means, that if you are "typical", you will likely be interrupted or will have your attention diverted elsewhere for a time before you even finish reading this article. Making matters worse, every time you are interrupted, it takes extra time to restart and pick up where you left off. To further compound the problem, all of these interruptions can cause stress and fatigue.
Remote worker challenges
The challenges posed by the constant barrage of digital communications and information in today's workplace is magnified when some or all of your team members work remotely.
One of the biggest benefits of working remotely is the autonomy and flexibility that remote team members enjoy, however the irony is that many employees who work remotely end up working longer hours than their in-office counterparts, in part because of a perception by others that the remote worker is always at work, and in part because many remote workers struggle with establishing clear boundaries.
What can result is a downward spiral: team communications and established workflows can suffer, productivity goals aren't met and employees find themselves burned out and disengaged.
If you've identified that your team's productivity is suffering, now is the time to take action. The following best practices and solutions have been implemented by many organizations as a means of improving employee focus. While the best solutions for your company will depend on your industry and team needs, these tips are general enough to have cross-industry applicability.
1. Look for bottlenecks. Where is the team's work getting stuck? Isolating the tasks that aren't working well is the first step in being able to identify solutions. Maybe the problem is broad (i.e. too many email interruptions), or maybe it's focused on one task in the workflow. Whatever you find, you'll want to implement solutions designed to fix the problem.
2. Block time. As a threshold step, get the team to commit to not interrupting each other for specific periods of time. While this won't do anything to cut down on external interruptions, it can minimize chaos and frustration from internal disruptions. Some companies have hard policies against Monday meetings, for instance. Others require meetings to start after 9am, giving everyone a chance to have an hour of meeting-free time in the morning to focus. Team members should stay out of email and turn off all alerts.
3. Remote boundaries. Encourage remote team members to establish boundaries for their work by establishing office hours, adhering to pre-determined stop times, and only checking smartphones or other devices at set intervals or times. Working from home does not have to equal 24/7 accessibility. Of course, for this to be effective, all team members need to commit to adhering to these boundaries.
4. Consider collaboration tools. Relying on email communication or instant messaging for collaboration is inefficient, both because of the frequent interruptions to team members, and because finding messages buried deep in users' inboxes when they are later needed can be nearly impossible. Teams can benefit from using collaboration tools for project-based work and communications. Using these tools, which may be cloud-based or internally-hosted, members have one central place to go for project information, updates, communications and file storage.
5. Establish a “Digital Communication Charter.” Lay out how all the organization’s different forms of digital communication should be used. For instance, while tools like Slack and Yammer offer great ways to share information, workers should not be expected to be immediately available at all times. The expectation of immediate feedback can become a tremendous distraction. Set ground rules for the use of each platform including when it should be used, reply expectations, what kind of information is appropriate, etc. This should marry with any file sharing/storage processes as well.
6. Tell Your Team It’s OK to Tune Out. Get your team members to occasionally and deliberately switch to analog tools like pen and paper and marker boards (assuming those things still exist in your office). To truly focus on a strategic initiative, it may be easier to stand in a conference room and work it out without PCs, tablets or phones. It’s easy to jump on a Slack channel to do the same thing but going analog removes the myriad distractions that come with Slack and the rest of the digitally-connected experience. Plus, it forces team members to use only their own brains when solving problems rather than Google. It’s a great way to get truly original, creative solutions.
Identifying how your team can work smarter is the first step in stopping the digital interruption productivity drain, and improving engagement in the process.
Digital workplace tools, including collaboration, cloud and workflow solutions, can work wonders, but employees and managers must be deliberate about using the tools and following established team protocols.
By being smart about deploying and using digital communications and workplace tools, team members can continue to enjoy autonomy with a renewed focus on the team's ultimate goals.
Mike Raia works in marketing for Integrify, a workflow management software company based in Chicago. For well over a decade, he has worked for large and (very) small SaaS companies. He writes about business strategy, marketing, and all things digital. You'll find him at on LinkedIn and on Twitter.