How to Minimize Smartphone Distraction at the Workplace

Posted by Brandon Carter on Dec. 13, 2016


Over on our customer loyalty blog, we constantly espouse the value of capturing bits of attention. It's a core aspect of engagement - add a little bit of contextual value to someone's day and they'll show their appreciation.

Push notifications are an essential part of those efforts. Adding those little disruptive popups makes a big difference in whether or not an app is deleted. They're essential!

But over here, on this employee engagement and benefits blog, we have to sing a different tune.

Push notifications are terrible, and they’re harming productivity.

How’s that for a change of pace? Harvey Dent has nothing on us!

In the world of work, where achieving focus and a flow state is essential to productivity and success, push notifications are the equivalent of loud sirens or a bullhorn.

We all do it. A little *bloop* on our screens and our heads instinctively snap over to check it out.

And it would probably be okay if it only happened once or twice a day.

Except it happens a lot more than that.

We check our phones 150 times each day, or about once every seven minutes.

That means we’re voluntarily disrupting productivity almost 70 times each workday!

While employees aren’t robots, and some distraction is necessary, that’s a lot of interruption.

Those tiny interruptions are causing more harm than you think. We're going to dive into why, then talk about how you can leverage this mobile obsession to your advantage.New Call-to-action


The Dangers of Distraction


An employee is working in a spreadsheet, crunching data. His phone pings to alert him about an incoming email. He pops it open, reads it, and starts working on a response, which is interrupted by Facebook wanting him to see some memories he shared with a friend from junior high on this date three years ago. Twenty minutes later the employee is caught in the numbing spiral that is the newsfeed and that's when Instagram chirps at him...

Wait, what was he working on again?

As Cal Newport points out in Deep Work, many of us are living on the surface of what we do, doing what’s necessary to stay afloat (such as responding to emails and checking off recurring tasks), but missing out on the impactful work and knowledge that only come as a result of prolonged periods of uninterrupted focus, research, and contemplation.

This lack of flow state and careful time usage is the bigger cost. Employees can't achieve everything they're capable of when they can't escape their inbox or their mobile devices. They need the freedom to submerge themselves in their roles.

For anecdotal evidence, see the rise of the dumb phone movement, wherein some folks are foregoing smartphones in favor of phones that have very basic capabilities. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a good way to prevent hours of screen-staring.

With Great Power Comes Great Productivity

Emails. Facebook. Instagram. Text messages. Tinder. Slack. All of these are begging for attention around the clock. And while we all do our best to switch to “work mode” when we walk in the office, our phones don’t.

You can ban smartphone usage at work. You can distribute company-approved devices.

Either of these is likely to breed resentment (although this Australian company is claiming great results with a smartphone ban).

Millennials in particular will disapprove - 78% of their generation believe that access to technology makes them more effective at work, and only 28% of them believe that their employer is making the full use of their skills. 

Many of those skills are built around mobile technology, so what do you do? Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Teach focus. Many employees don’t take the time to focus simply because they don’t know the benefits of it. But don’t just share the benefits, let them know how easy it is. Educate them on the Pomodoro Technique, or even offer to pay for distraction-eliminating apps like Forest, which rewards users who don’t give in to the temptation to play with their phones. 

    Odds are at least some employees don’t even know how to turn off notifications on their devices. You can’t make them do it most likely, but you can show them how and encourage it.
  • Set an example. Everyone notices the successes of their peers, and smart employees will emulate the behavior of their managers. When someone is able to show increased productivity and quality of work by simply leaving their smartphone in the car, or even in a coat jacket across the room, people will follow. And for goodness' sake, never whip out your phone and stare at in meetings. Speaking of...
  • Ban devices from meetings. Not only are face-to-face meetings important to build cohesion and empathy, they’re important to keep people on task. Yet they’re often derailed by people fiddling with phones or laptops. Banning unnecessary electronics from meeting rooms is good way to cut down on time spent in meetings, while also showing people that they can live without their smartphones for periods of time.
  • Productivity_Apps_Infographic.jpgCreate boundaries. Employees are working longer hours than ever, and much of it is due to our smartphone obsession and feeling like we need to check email after hours. By discouraging employees from working at all hours of the night, companies will actually see more focus and productivity when employees are truly “on the clock.” Need an example? Check out what happened when the Boston Consulting Group created boundaries around working hours.
  • Encourage the use of productivity apps. Yeah, there are some “cool” apps out there that make work and productivity more intuitive - if not necessarily eliminating the potential for distraction. Slack, DropBox, Wunderlist, IF by IFTTT are all apps that can be used to manage tasks and enable collaboration. Even old standards like Microsoft Outlook are doing cool things on mobile, especially their “Focused Inbox” feature.

Go Deeper!

Smartphones aren’t the only ones to blame for constant distractions. Coworkers, email, meetings, scheduled breaks are all necessary, yet demand a shifting focus. And as we mentioned, employees aren’t robots who should be measured entirely on the depth of their productivity.

But to enable the kind of deep, quality work that your brand deserves, the people who comprise your office will likely need to find avenues to increased concentration and focus.

As great as smartphones are for grabbing the attention of consumers, they’re even better when they’re patiently idling by while an employee dives deep into the efforts of their occupation.

(Facebook cartoon courtesy of Imgur)New Call-to-action

Topics: Employee Engagement + Loyalty, Benefits Trends

Brandon Carter

Written by Brandon Carter

Brandon is a former writer and marketer for Access Development. He's a frequent blogger on customer and employee engagement & loyalty, consumer trends, and branding. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @bscarter