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Want better productivity? Here’s what managers get wrong.

It’s likely your employees are drowning in distractions every day. Here’s a simple guide to being a more focus-friendly boss for your team.

Man sitting at desk, holding mouse and looking at computer screen


The old joke about how your dog loses focus when a squirrel runs by is alive and well in today’s workplaces, whether that’s an office setting or a remote-work environ—


Whew. Just got a message there and had to check it. Okay, back to work…

Sound familiar? Emails and IMs and other pings are a leading cause of distraction to knowledge workers. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit report In Search of Lost Focus, a staggering 70% of these critical-thinking employees disrupt their own progress in order to check email at least once an hour—and 18% check every few minutes.

“As a consortium of marketing consultants, we have hundreds of marketing experts working in different organizations on any given day,” said Brendon Schrader, founder and CEO of Antenna, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm. “They need to be at the top of their game, and they can’t afford to waste a second. So we need to support them around the clock without actually interrupting them.”

Each knowledge worker on your team loses an average of 581 hours a year to distractions. That’s over 14 weeks—per person—spent not actually working. Have a hundred employees? That’s nearly 28 years of distraction each and every year. In dollar terms, that’s $391 billion in lost productivity annually in the U.S. alone—or roughly $34,448 per knowledge employee. Improving that focus, on the other hand, and eliminating distractions could yield $1.2 trillion in untapped employee output.

With that kind of money, you could hire someone to read your emails for you.

Does working from home make focusing harder?

The short answer is no. 70% say their focus is either sharper than at the office or that their ability to stay on task is unchanged when working from home.

Even so, remote workers still struggle with a number of issues, including:

  • Greater levels of miscommunication
  • Difficulty starting new projects with multiple collaborators
  • Negative impacts on company culture
  • Feeling disconnected, the biggest contributing factor to worker disengagement

So while they feel like they’re working harder than ever, your knowledge employees are distracted, disengaged, and unwittingly divesting you of $34K a year—each.

Regardless of whether you have 50 employees or 500, it’s a problem you’re going to have to, well, focus on. It’s not like these workers are napping on the job—they’re checking their emails. You can’t simply tell them to stop.

Are you part of the problem?

What can leaders do to foster more focus at work? To start, you can stop trying to do everything. If you’re constantly trying to cover everything, you can conjure up an unending swirl of chaos that actually creates more problems.

Instead, finding focus for yourself will give you the time to do what you do best. Here are a few tips to try.

1. Lead by example

Showing your employees what you want out of them always carries more weight than telling them what to do. So own your distractions and actually demonstrate focus. One easy thing you can do: let your team know that messages from you aren’t always on fire. Staffers can finish what they’re doing before they respond, so an email from the boss won’t slow them down.

2. Get out of email and out of meetings

According to the EIU report, people with meeting-free worktime are three times more likely to report being focused. So try creating blocks of uninterrupted time by turning off your mail and creating no-meeting Wednesdays, or whatever works. Then commit to this time as an individual and as an organization, and your employees will recognize your resolve with commitments of their own. If you need to see what your crew is up to, use a tool like Dropbox, which lets you monitor team activity—without having to interrupt the team.

3. Get comfortable with the hybrid working model

Working from home isn’t going anywhere, and some folks aren’t ever coming back to the office. So give your employees easy tools to connect and collaborate regardless of what they call the office.

4. Balance face-to-face meetings with focused solo time

We’ll all be excited when we can once again work across the table from each other. But when that happens, try not to go all-in, all at once. Leave space for solo work and, whenever possible, collaborate without convening—using flexible storage and collaboration solutions that allow you to see and share work remotely.

5. Make remote work work better

Follow these few simple tips from Inc. to stay focused in the home office, and encourage your team to do the same.

  • Take frequent breaks—the most productive people break for 17 minutes every 52 minutes.
  • Bribe yourself with a treat or cup of coffee, but only once a particular task is done.
  • Turn off notifications. Nothing breaks a groove like the ping of another email or Slack coming through.
  • Work out during your workday—moving your body boosts your energy to stay on task.
  • Give yourself deadlines—real ones—they’ll help weed out distractions.
  • Get dressed. When you’re in your PJs, it doesn’t feel like you’re working, so you don’t work as hard.

6. Get the right tools

If you’re constantly switching from platform to platform, it isn’t easy to stay on task. Developing a digital “ecosystem” that easily integrates the tools employees need—or working on a shared platform like Dropbox, which allows for simple file sharing and real-time comments—helps workers get into a productive flow and keep going.

You’re paying for it

That $34,448 figure we mentioned earlier—you remember, the amount you may be losing per employee per year to distractions—quickly proves the value of any solution that helps them concentrate. Consider investing in the types of tools proven to keep people on task, because anything that’s good for employee focus is good for business.

Now go check your email.

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