Close

Sign up to get the latest news and stories on the future of work.

Subscribe Search

Search form

Constant interruptions rarely have a positive impact on work productivity, and a new study sheds light on the specific ways distractions impede creative work. Researchers at George Mason University recently found that people wrote much higher quality essays when undisturbed than participants who were interrupted during the task. 

“Every time e-mail comes in, every time a text messages goes in, a little time goes,” says Deborah Boehm-Davis, a professor of psychology who co-authored the paper. “People think they can work and be productive in the face of all those interruptions. This work suggests that they can’t.”

Whether it’s external interruptions like chatty co-workers and never-ending meetings, or internal ones like personal calls and having too many browser tabs open, new distractions pop up every day. At the same time, technology offers many opportunities to boost productivity. Some companies are searching for a balance, helping their employees weed out unnecessary productivity killers without going back to the Dark Ages.

1. Rethink internal e-mail 

While e-mail immensely helps employees track projects and communicate with clients, sometimes it stands in the way of succinct, real-time communications within the office. Employees at software design firm Menlo Innovations don’t use e-mail to for internal communications. Instead, they use what CEO Rich Sheridan refers to as “High-Speed Voice Technology,” starting a conversation with a coworker by making eye contact and calling out his or her name. “No conference room to book, no calendar synced, no endless e-mail circles to find a time that works for both of us,” Sheridan writes in his book “Joy Inc.” 

After global IT service company Atos found that employees spent more than two hours a day managing e-mail, the 74,000-person firm vowed to phase out internal e-mail. Its “Zero Email” program won an award from Forrester for social collaboration. Instead, employees use an Enterprise Social Network. The company says that so far workers have saved 25 percent of work time previously spent on e-mail and reduced disruptions and e-mail overload by 60 percent. 

2. Streamline meetings

In a recent survey, partners at consulting firm Bain & Company found that 15 percent of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings. Senior executives spend even more time—more than two days per week on average—meeting with colleagues. 

To prevent meetings from eating too much of workers’ time, content marketing software company Percolate sets 15 minutes as the default length for meetings, Kevan Lee reports in Fast Company. Software company 37 Signals tries to avoid meetings, but when they’re absolutely necessary, employees actually set a timer. After 30 minutes, the meeting ends without exception.

3. Limit devices

While smartphones and tablets help us accomplish more work on the go, there’s a time and a place for them. During a meeting, for instance, a cell phone and its accompanying distractions do more harm than good. The White House bans devices from Cabinet meetings, asking participants to place their phones in a basket. Similarly, eBay has a no-device policy for some team meetings, according to The Wall Street Journal.

4. Encourage single-tasking

The Internet provides immense resources for employees, but it also provides endless distractions. Employees at The Atlantic have implemented “Tabless Thursdays,” one day a week when they only have one browser tab open at a time. “Tabs are a metaphor for life, right? And if you can just have one tab open and be doing it well, then you are fully present in the moment," senior editor James Hamblin explains in a video.

How is your company helping employees limit interruptions and distractions in today’s connected workplace?

Photo: Can Stock