Quelling Distraction

By Maggie Jackson Aug 1, 2008

HR Magazine August 2008 coverHelp employees overcome ‘information overload.’

Lynaia Lutes is taking time to focus.

An account supervisor at a small Texas advertising and public relations agency, Lutes not long ago was a master of executing the details of work, without always focusing on strategy and long-term vision. Glued to her personal digital assistant, she shot off e-mails night and day, yet felt overwhelmed and sometimes did work that didn’t pass muster with her bosses.

“A couple of times, I basically completed an assignment” but didn’t approach it strategically, admits Lutes.

Now, taking time to think and focus deeply has become one of Lutes’ performance goals. And she and the 14 other employees at the Blanchard Schaefer agency in Arlington are expected to make appointments with themselves just to contemplate, even daydream, for an hour. New on the premises, a “womb room,” spartan and unwired, allows employees to retreat to let the ideas flow without interruption.

“Our society has gotten to a place where we reward those who micromanage: ‘Did I respond immediately on my BlackBerry; was I online at 11 p.m.?’ ” asserts agency president Ken Schaefer. “Having time to think is absolutely critical to creating good strategy. We view it as a competitive advantage.”

Today’s knowledge economy prizes innovation, creativity and vision. Yet too often employees are so hurried, hyper-connected and scattered that they don’t have time to focus and reflect -- the building blocks of creative knowledge work.

Alarmed by the long-term potential costs of such distraction, a growing number of progressive employers, from IBM to the Charlotte, N.C., Chamber of Commerce, are taking imaginative steps to carve out islands of reflection in a sea of busy-ness.

Drowning in Busy-ness

The sheer volume of information, instantaneousness of global communication and speed of change make many workers attention-deficient. Leaping from task to task and perpetually distracted by the next thing, they stray from priority work or, worse, fail to ascertain the priorities of their jobs.

This work style, of growing concern to managers and HR professionals, undermines work quality and morale. Employees dogged by interruptions and lacking time to focus are more apt to feel frustrated and stressed, and more prone to angry outbursts, studies show. Interruptions plus associated recovery time consume 2.1 hours of a typical knowledge worker’s day, costing U.S. businesses an estimated $650 billion annually, calculated at a $21 hourly pay rate, according to the business research firm Basex.

“Knowledge workers may be constantly busy, but that doesn’t make them either productive or efficient,” observes Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at New York-based Basex. “It also doesn’t mean that what they are doing is aligned with the strategic goals of their employer.”

Effects of Fragmentation

Research has shown that how work gets done today represents a productivity challenge for employers, as workers increasingly become agile multitaskers and inveterate jugglers of interruptions.

In studies, people are less efficient and more prone to make mistakes when they try to tackle two cognitive tasks at once, such as reading e-mail and talking on the phone. In such situations, the brain suffers “switch costs” from essentially being forced to toggle between tasks. Practice can diminish yet never fully alleviate such outcomes, according to experts.

Juggling tasks has become an inescapable element of work, as the new field of “interruption science” reveals. Leading researcher Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine, calls this a time of “work fragmentation.”

After studying two high-tech firms for more than 1,000 hours in 2005, Mark found that workers on average spend just 11 minutes on a project and, within that time frame, typically change tasks every three minutes. For example, they might work on the budget for 11 minutes but bounce between incoming e-mails or related web research every three minutes. Moreover, nearly half the time, workers interrupt themselves by jumping to a new task. Fifty-five percent of workers open e-mail immediately or shortly after it arrives, rather than wait for a convenient lull in their work, reports Basex.

This isn’t necessarily bad, as modern life demands cognitive agility. Yet there is a cost: Getting back on track is hard. Once distracted, employees take about 25 minutes to return to an interrupted task and usually plunge into two other work projects in the interim, Mark found. This constant hunt for the lost thread of work is “very detrimental,” she says.

It’s also stressful, Mark found in her latest study involving a work scenario. She gave 48 people a “job” as a human resource manager answering staff e-mails, then had them do similar work while being peppered with interruptions. They did their work well, compensating for the intrusions by working faster, yet experienced significantly more stress, frustration and time pressures when working interrupted.

“Our experiment is just a short slice of time, but if people are doing this day in and day out, I am sure it would lead to an impact on the work,” says Mark. “If you’re continually interrupted and switching thoughts, it’s hard to think deeply about anything. How can you engage with something?”

This may be as true for “digital natives,” the generations who seem to multitask from the crib, as for older workers, new research shows. For instance, when a group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds performed a brief but demanding code-based task, the younger group performed slightly better, according to a 2007 study by the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford University in England.

Yet when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, text message or instant message, the younger group lost their advantage, while the older people performed as well. This is because while older workers are slightly more cognitively cautious (in other words, they check themselves for errors more often), they nevertheless have more-developed brain systems for switching between tasks. (For more on older workers’ abilities, see the cover story in the May 2008 issue of HR Magazine.)

“They are better at switching from one task to another,” says Martin Westwell, co-author of the study and director of the Flinders University Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century in Adelaide, Australia. Parts of the prefrontal cortex responsible for multitasking and other executive tasks don’t fully develop until as late as the mid-20s.

Thinking on the Job

Certainly, employees of all ages feel the effects of overload. Nearly a third of workers feel they often do not have time to reflect on or process the work they do, according to the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research institute in New York City. More than half typically have to juggle too many tasks simultaneously or are so often interrupted that they find it difficult to get work done.

“There’s a strong connection between feeling overworked, overwhelmed and not having time to step back and think about what you’re doing, and being stressed at work, and even getting angry at people at work,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the institute. “It’s a problem. The way we’re working is getting worse.”

Andy Hines, a futurist, asks employees where their “creative space” is when he gives talks at corporations. People say they go for walks, take baths or even daydream while commuting, but rarely do they say “at work.”

“Here we are where our task is to come up with innovative solutions, and the last place we can do it is work,” marvels Hines, director of consulting at the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Social Technologies. “People say, ‘Why don’t you work at home if you need to get some work done?’ Don’t come to work if you have to think!”

Carving Out Creative Spaces

So will “womb rooms” start popping up across corporate America? Maybe not, but a growing number of companies in varied industries across the country use similar innovations to help reduce rampant overload and unthinking busy-ness.

Many employers call their efforts “white space,” meaning either a physical place or a time on the calendar for uninterrupted focus, creative thought or just agenda-free reflection. A white space is a refuge from the clutter of modern work life.

“We are all struggling with finding the time to think creatively about what we’re trying to achieve, instead of just [going through] the motions toward a set of goals,” says Blair Stanford, chief operating officer at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

After attending an executive course at an arts colony -- the McColl Center for Visual Arts in Charlotte -- on nurturing creativity, Stanford helped build a “creative room” at the chamber, where employees can brainstorm or daydream in a denlike setting -- complete with a bottomless bowl of M&M’s. “It’s a more informal environment; it’s stimulating,” says Stanford, who directs human resources for the organization’s 50 employees.

One of the chief lessons that executives take away from the McColl Center’s six-day Innovation Institute is that creativity doesn’t just happen, says president Suzanne Fetscher. “You have to create the place and the time, and you have to have the discipline,” she observes. “It’s hard work.”

And such work is often discomfiting for those reared in a world of nonstop to-do lists and beeping, ringing gadgets. “To go into an empty room, a white box or a white space is intimidating,” says Fetscher. “You just don’t know if you’re going to come up with results.”

For some employers, white space is carved into the calendar. Recently, Citizens Financial Group, based in Providence, R.I., made innovation-oriented mini-retreats a part of the fabric of company life, holding more than 300 daylong interdepartmental, problem-solving “Work-Out” sessions in the past year for 4,000 of its 24,500 employees.

“It’s really important for organizations to give people time during the workday for thinking and being creative, because they’re being pulled in so many different directions,” says Vivian Bolt, executive vice president and HR director at Citizens Financial Group.

At IBM, employees around the world have begun to avoid meetings -- virtual or otherwise -- and even e-mails or calls on Fridays as part of a grass-roots innovation called “Think Fridays.” The idea was pioneered in 2005 by software engineers eager for a time to slow down and work on patents and other intense thought work. Now, some workers in China practice English, while others take time for mentoring, says Maria Ferris, director of global diversity programs. She spent one recent Friday planning her presentation for an upcoming national work/life conference.

“You can spend quality time on the parts of your work that require focus, or something you want to develop,” says Ferris, adding that the practice is “a way to step back and acknowledge that there are times when we have to leave technology at the door.”

Some employers even help workers find and preserve their own white space through courses in meditation or mindfulness. While such classes have been a corporate perk for years, today’s culture of overload is inspiring renewed interest. Google, Dunkin’ Brands, IBM and Reebok are among companies that have offered meditation or related classes in recent years.

“People try all sorts of tools and technology [to get ahead], and ultimately it dead-ends,” says Diana Winston, director of education at the University of California at Los Angeles’ Mindful Awareness Research Center. “There’s only so far management tools can go, and then we have to start looking at what’s going on inside us.”

Since its creation last year by the university’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, the center has offered classes and lectures to hundreds of employees and students at the institute and its affiliated hospital. A $100,000 meditation room recently opened in the heart of the medical complex.

While employers have long been driven to help employees focus on their work, Carol Sladek, principal and global work/life consulting leader at Hewitt Associates in Chicago, says benefits such as day care centers and flexible hours -- as helpful as those offerings are -- are only partial solutions.

“We are hearing this from both sides,” says Sladek. “Employees are not enjoying a life of work, work, work, multitasking and running in 12 different directions, and employers are feeling the strain of that. What employers are trying to wrestle with is trying to ease that burden.”

The author writes the “Balancing Acts” column on work/life issues in the Boston Sunday Globe. This article was adapted from her book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, June 2008).


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