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
  3. Focusing on Productivity Shouldn’t Push Life to the Back

The Distractions of Transportation

You would think that, given the potential benefits it has on productivity, companies would be lining up to subsidize mass transit construction, embrace remote work situations or otherwise make sure that the workforce they claim to value so highly can actually get to the work they need to accomplish.

That does not seem to be the case, though.

Let’s start from the beginning: There are two basic models of where someone works.

  1. They go to the work. This is common for industrial and farm industries, where the worker needs to be where the crops are being pulled or where the massive machinery is located. It’s also how the traditional office was structured, with everyone coming to a central location to tap into common resources and knowledge that weren’t accessible elsewhere.
  2. The work comes to them. This is more and more common, as workers in the knowledge economy can increasingly access everything they need to do their job – from email to documents to calendars to presentation and messaging systems – via the web or apps that work on any kind of device with an internet connection.

Each one needs to be reviewed for its pros and cons.


Going to the Work

In the first model, there’s a certain level of infrastructure that’s needed. Roads, train lines and other transportation systems must be built and people need to be able to access those systems, meaning they need a car for the highway or the financial and logistical ability to get to a train or bus.

The building out of this infrastructure is what allowed for the growth of the suburbs in the post-WW II era as returning veterans were attracted by federal housing assistance programs that made buying or building a house several miles out from the city cheaper and more attractive than continuing to rent closer to the center. Train lines and highways originally meant for the transportation of military equipment were easily repurposed for civilian use, so people could still work in the city where the jobs were but live out amidst the green lawns and racial segregation.

This model was predicated on the idea that work was a centralized activity, which for decades was largely true. It also had the benefit of creating a much more clear differentiation between when someone was or wasn’t at work, since there wasn’t much most people could bring home with them and they weren’t going to get a memo in the middle of dinner. Asking someone to come back to work once they were home was a monumental request.

Now, with communications technology so far advanced from what it was in the 1950s, most companies still ask workers to assemble under one roof in order to do their jobs. Commutes have gotten longer in major cities, but that’s alright since workers are often expected to be working while on the train or bus, or in their car or cab. There’s no reason not to answer that email, and not doing so could make you look like you’re not committed to the company.

So either the company is A) asking the worker to log additional hours outside of when they’re expected to be in the office and not paying them any more for it or B) requiring the worker engage in an activity that can take at least a couple hours out of their day in each direction and not subsidizing or incentivizing that time.

The costs of transportation, as well as other logistics, can be a major drain on an individual’s emotional health and therefore their productivity. Owning a car is expensive, not only the purchase but the maintenance and upkeep. Not everyone can swing that and is therefore locked out of potential employment. While utilizing mass transit may be cheaper, it’s not something the US has prioritized at all, meaning not everyone has access to it either.

Plus, if an employer is just going to be emailing you all night and morning anyway, what’s the point of coming in? Employees then find themselves in a position where they have to go to the work but the work also comes to them, meaning they never fully escape.

The Work Comes to You

This situation is facilitated entirely by the rise of the internet, where everyone can access email, messaging apps, word processing and other tools from any location at any time. So if they can work remotely, they want to.

A recent study showed that remote workers were more productive than their office-bound colleagues because they didn’t have to worry about commuting and could put those hours to better use. They also don’t suffer from the kind of workplace distractions that are all-too-common, including noisy coworkers, drop-ins and other pressures.

The benefits, reinforced by a separate study of remote workers, would seem to be great for companies that embraced the idea. But the first set of results also showed workers felt they were being judged as slacking and were more likely to be passed over for a raise or promotion because they weren’t putting in the face time with superiors, meaning they weren’t under the constant gaze of those superiors. As if schmoozing the boss were the point of the job instead of getting the work done.

The kind of logic necessary to enact a system whereby someone must report to a central location while doing nothing to make that easier – either logistically or financially – is only possible in a capitalist system, where no additional money can be spent on anything that won’t return value to investors inside of two fiscal quarters. And the logic needed to say that someone must both be in a central location to be a valued employee while also being reachable at all times of the day because communications systems make that possible is only possible when employee well being is at the bottom of your list of priorities.

Productivity is the end goal of both systems, but only so long as it doesn’t necessitate the company doing anything differently. Which means it isn’t really a priority at all. If it were you’d see companies tripping over themselves to pay whatever municipal taxes were required so the train lines ran as well as possible, or that employees were paid not only for the work they do but the time and expense needed to get to the work. There’s not much of either in evidence.