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.

Read the previous entries in this series:

  1. The Reality of Offices Negatively Impact Productivity
  2. Employer Technology Investment Impacts Productivity

The Distractions of Life

There’s this apparent assumption on the part of employers that once someone steps on the factory or office floor they shed all other responsibilities and concerns. The very idea of the “company man” was born of this notion, the figure of someone who sublimates himself in the service of his employer, putting those needs and priorities above all else.

While this has changed somewhat in recent years, it’s still not where it should be. And the disconnect between employer expectations and employee reality is a significant source of distractions that impact worker productivity.

There’s a lot of talk in the last 20 years about work/life balance, all rooted in the idea that an individual can fully commit to one identity during this period of the day and other other identity during another part of the day. But that’s not how life works. Kids get sick in the middle of the day, necessitating leaving work to pick someone up from school. Banks need to be called because there’s a problem with an account.

The problem is that everyone is operating on the same schedule and with the same set of expectations. You need to call the bank, but their customer service number is only available from 8am to 5pm the same hours you’re at work. And your office doesn’t like you making personal calls. The school has your kids from from 7am to 3pm, meaning any problems that come up there are going to happen during your workday. And because your office doesn’t have a remote work policy, as many don’t, you can’t just work from home and be a bit more flexible in when you deal with things.

For many workers, the stress of finding childcare is a major drain on emotional resources. That’s because the work and school models are so drastically different. Schools are (usually) close to home and operate from about 7am to 3pm, despite plentiful research showing that’s not the best idea for developing brains and bodies. Offices, though, are often far away and operate from 8am to 5pm, not counting the commutes that are getting longer in major metropolitan areas. So you’re taking parents far away from their children and making them pay for both childcare (or coordinate whatever alternative support systems may be available) and the commute.

That sounds like a system designed to create a distracted worker, not a productive employee.

While more companies are offering some version of “parental leave” as a benefit to employees, that is designed for what are almost exclusively one-off events, either the birth of a child or an adoption. That’s great, but what’s needed is a system that realizes parental responsibilities don’t end after the first 12 weeks, six months or two years. It’s always part of who someone is.

So too they are always a child themselves, with a responsibility to care for aging parents. And they are spouses, who sometimes need to prioritize that aspect of their life. Not all of these can be shunted to after 6:30pm, when the train finally drops you off or you finally get out of the car after your commute home.

It’s not just family, of course, that takes up part of someone’s attention. But companies don’t want you to have a life outside of work either during work, which is why many ban personal social media usage during office hours, or after, which is why companies increasingly create offices that double as rec centers, so you never have to leave and are always available.

Rigid adherence to a workday model that was standardized by agrarian economies before the advent of electric outdoor lighting seems nonsensical in the early part of the 21st century, when all of us have instant access to both personal and professional communications and productivity tools 24 hours a day. So too does the expectation that when someone walks in the front door of an office or logs on from a remote location that they stop being a parent, child, spouse, friend or significant other.

The paradigm needs to change from “We pay you to be in the office from 8am to 5pm five days a week” – at least for those jobs where such a model is relevant – to “We pay you to do the job; how and when you do it is largely irrelevant to us.” That will require companies to begin prioritizing employee quality of life far more than they currently do and realize the productivity advantages that come with remote work not only because it eliminates the commute but because not being under the Eye of Sauron for eight hours or more a day means they have more flexibility to do the work that actually comes in, not just appear busy for three out of those eight hours.