Monday, December 16, 2013

Managing Distracted Employees

From Guest Blogger Marty Martin, Psy.D.

Workday distractions are everywhere, stealing employees’ time and productivity. Between new technologies that beg for people’s attention to the prevalence of shortened attention spans, everyone on a work team has the opportunity to be more distracted today than in the past. Being distracted at work creates numerous problems from missed opportunities to strained business relationships. Therefore, a manager needs to effectively manage employees so their distractions are minimized.

First, recognize the two categories of distraction. One is internal distraction, the other is external distraction. Internal distractions include physiological, emotional, attitudinal, biological or physical discomfort. 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. External distractions include other people and technology. Examples include co-workers who stop by to chat, social media and text alerts on a smartphone, e-mail notifications popping up on a computer screen and people who talk loudly in the office. These seemingly innocuous items easily divert people’s attention.

The real challenge is that most employees aren’t experiencing just one or two of these distractions. They’re facing multiple distractions each day. In addition, organizational structures have changed over the years, adding more duties and responsibilities to every job description. That means employees must 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 managed in the workplace. 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. Before taking that route, examine the job and environment to see whether they are distracting to employees. What are the job duties, both those stated explicitly in the job description and those that employee just always seems to do? What’s the working environment like? What visual or auditory distractions are present? How is the office set up? How are the lighting, the chair and the desk layout? What other factors affect employee efficiency, effectiveness and performance? Realize that if the work environment and the job are poorly designed, highly talented individuals may continue to underperform. So, before reprimanding, analyze. 
  • Create a distraction elimination plan for your distracted employees. Remember elementary school and the kids who always bothered others, threw spit balls or just stared out the window? What did the teacher do? She had a plan. She moved disruptive kids to the front and moved window gazers' desks so they could no longer see the window. The teacher knew what to do because she had a plan in mind. Good managers do the same. They work with the distracted worker to create a distraction elimination plan (DEP).  It may identify some physical changes to the office, such as moving to a new cubicle or changing the lighting, or it may include strategies to help the employee focus, such as closing an e-mail program or disabling smartphone alerts. A plan gives all involved something concrete to reference and use as a benchmark to gauge progress. Distractions rarely self-resolve, so the better the plan, the better the results. 
  • Offer other resources as needed. Sometimes, even with a manager’s help and a solid DEP in place, the employee is still distracted. In these cases, the manager must know when to offer additional resources. For example, if the organization has an employee assistance program (EAP), consider making a recommendation to an appropriate resource or service. If the organization has no EAP, then present the idea of additional help in a supportive and neutral fashion. For example, suggest it as a step in the DEP: “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 to determine whether the situation is more serious than simple distractions.
No More Distractions
The next time you notice some employees are underperforming, don’t immediately reprimand them. Instead, take the time to determine whether there’s something you or the company can do to remove workplace distractions. Distractions don’t have to be a major part of the workday. Good mangers can help minimize them. Remember, the fewer distractions people have, the more productive they’ll be.

Dr. Marty Martin is the author of Taming Disruptive Behavior, published by the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE). Martin is director of the Health Sector Management MBA Concentration and an associate professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University. Learn more here.