Distractions of some sort or another are a major issue when it comes to productivity. There’s so much going on in modern life that it’s almost inevitable. Social media beckons with its siren song offering you the latest conversations and updates, whether you’re seeking the solace of puppy pics on Facebook or the outrage engine on Twitter. Text messages beep, emails chirp and so on.

Those sorts of distractions can be a major drain on productivity, which impacts both the individual and the employer. There’s a cottage industry in the business media offering tips for workers on how to reduce the number of distractions that get in the way of them doing their job as well as tips for companies on how to keep their staff focused on what they’re supposed to be doing.

After researching some of the advice and guidance that’s offered, it’s clear that the types of distractions being warned about and guarded against fall into one or more of several big categories. Few stories address these larger issues, though, instead dealing more granularly with things that can be implemented by managers *now* and pointed to when the time for their annual performance review comes around.

The Distractions of the Modern Workplace

Offices are terrible places to get anything done and it’s a miracle any work is accomplished in them. Centralized locations where employees gathered made sense as recently as 10 or 15 years ago when providing access to resources and technology necessary to do the job was a good reason to continue adhering to this model, but that time has passed. Web apps, chat tools and more make it easy for many people to do their jobs effectively from anywhere they like.

An office environment seems to be fertile ground for distractions by its very nature. Bringing together a group of people under one roof and asking them to spend eight hours of their day invites chatting, outings for coffee and more. When the office is a major source of human interaction and people are encouraged to fraternize in order to fit in with the culture, it’s inevitable that they will eventually spend a good amount of time talking about non-work related matters in addition to whatever else they have to do.

One argument frequently used for the relevance of the centralized office model is the “drop in.” You just have a quick question for Carol and oh hey, there she is walking away from the break room as you’re walking toward it, allowing you to resolve the issue now instead of with yet another email.

That’s a good point and yes, that is an advantage. But it’s also just as likely you’re going to pass Carol in the hallway and ask her how the concert she went to last night was and 15 minutes later you’ve both discussed your favorite 80s hair metal bands instead of doing anything remotely resembling your job.

It’s not just human interactions that can become distractions, of course. You might want to spend the next hour plowing through this presentation you have to finish up, but Nick in the cubicle next to yours is apparently incapable of using his inside voice on the phone and he’s firing up a conference call at the same time. You’d love to put headphones in and tune him out, but that’s not helping. And someone nearby apparently hasn’t figured out how to turn off sounds in Outlook.

Oh, and it’s too damn cold all year round while also being a breeding ground for the kinds of microaggressions women and other groups are subjected to constantly and which eat up emotional and mental bandwidth, keeping them from doing their job effectively.

When it comes down to it, working in an office is little different than working at a Starbucks, library or shopping mall food court. There’s a constant flurry of activity around you, people act with little regard to how their behavior impacts others and the environment is largely out of your control.

That’s why it wasn’t surprising at all when a Stanford study earlier this year showed productivity increased when people worked remotely. When you’re home you can control all those factors, with Slack, Jabber or other tools replacing the serendipitous hallway encounter.

While more companies understand the benefits of remote work, few have formal policies in place. That will need to change in the very near future if companies truly want their workers to be more productive.

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