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.

You can read the first part of this series, focusing on the distractions of the modern workplace, here.

The Distractions of Technology

When you think of how technology impedes productivity you probably think of the neverending barrage of push alerts, bells and other notifications someone receives on their personal mobile device.

There are myriad ways in which technology impacts productivity, though, both positively and negatively even when you put aside the effects – both present and future – of automation, artificial intelligence and more.

20 years ago most people’s primary interactions with advanced technology was likely in the workplace. Flip phones were still the hot new mobile trend, only 39 percent of the US population had an internet connection in their homes and broadband connections were still a couple years out. We weren’t yet an “always on” society.

As phones became smarter, broadband connections at home became more pervasive and so on, the expectations held by employers began changing. Being home was no longer an impediment to getting things done because you could easily respond to emails, keep plugging away at that presentation and so on.

But there remained a digital divide on a number of fronts that has continued having an effect on worker productivity.

Ever since the 2008 economic collapse there’s been a prolonged period of companies opting not to invest in technology and tools that can help workers do more or do better. The 2017 tax cuts were meant to encourage them to do so but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Productivity, as measured by economists, has subsequently remained relatively low.

So what kind of technology you have access to in order to do your job depends greatly on what kind of company you work for.

In a big company you may be given standard equipment such as a computer, keyboard and so on. You might be able to request additional tools like an extra monitor or mouse, but you’re still dealing with whatever the company has found it most cost efficient to stock in its IT department. But that kind of equipment may not work best for everyone, or the availability of that equipment may not be sufficient to meet all needs.

How open a workplace is to someone bringing in their own substitutes – such as an keyboard that is more comfortable for them – will vary from one company to the next, even if that technology markedly improves the individual’s ability to do their job. There may be issues of network security, concerns because it’s not a product from a client (this is a very big deal in some companies) or some other reason.

If they’re fine with someone bringing in the kind of external monitor or other tech they prefer, great. But even that has its problems since it creates a situation where those with additional means are at an advantage over those without. If, for instance, Carol brings in the same kind of keyboard she’s been using at home because it’s more comfortable, she may be more productive than Alice, who’s in the same job but whose financial reality means she can’t order the fancy keyboard off Amazon. When a promotion becomes available, then, Carol has something of an advantage over Alice, only expanding the socioeconomic disparity between the two.

Some companies, especially smaller ones that don’t have big IT budgets, have adopted Bring Your Own Device policies where employees can use the phones, laptops, tablets and other technology they already have for work purposes. This makes a certain amount of sense both because it saves the company money and because so much of what’s done today in the knowledge economy is web-based and is therefore largely device-agnostic.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach, including the fact that it’s heavily tilted in favor of those who can afford to have those devices in the first place. So if you’re looking for work but the openings that seem most suited for your skills include the caveat “must provide own laptop” and you don’t have one because a smartphone was the better choice for your limited means, you’re out of luck.

If employers wanted to wring the maximum productivity from their employees they would allocate more funds to technology and equipment but take a different approach. Instead of saying “Here’s your Dell laptop, the same one everyone else in the company has” and putting it on the individual to request a keyboard, monitor and mouse – all of which are also identical to what everyone else is provided – to go along with it, they would ask “What would help you do your job most effectively and efficiently” and proceed accordingly.

I’m not suggesting every company needs to cater to every technological whim someone has. But if someone has been using Macs for 10 years and you throw a Windows machine at them, their productivity is going to take a hit because keyboard shortcuts are different, browsers are arranged differently and more. The converse is true as well, of course. Spending an extra $50 on a fancy keyboard might have long-term benefits that outstrip the cost as well.

Technology can be a distraction, it’s true, just not always in the way that the press often focuses on.

The Distractions of Life

The Distractions of Transportation