Biz Features

Office Distractions: Part One – How Divided Attention Costs Businesses

by . January 12th, 2012

Ever feel distractions at the office keep you from doing work that’s really important? You’re not alone. A 2007 study stated that American workers spend an average of 45 hours at work a week, with 15 of those hours self-reported to be “unproductive”. Another study conducted the same year study by Basex estimated that distractions cost U.S. businesses $588 billion annually.

Distracting Office

Take note that these studies were done before the widespread use of Social Media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. We could probably safely assume that the same proportion of hours or more is being wasted today.

There is a lot of disagreement about how this time is actually wasted. A study at Microsoft had a whopping 71 percent of respondents tag unnecessary meetings as the main source of unproductive distractions. AOL unsurprisingly points to online distractions as the main culprit. Office conditions ranging from roaches to untidy desks are some of the other common culprits cited in these and other studies.

Not to be left behind, I also conducted a study myself, albeit informally.

Asking people around the office what the main causes of work interruptions were, I came up with the following responses. These have been arranged in the order of frequency:

  • “Fun” websites, regardless of whether they were related to actual work.
  • Instant messages not directly related to tasks.
  • Office meetings.
  • Requests not related to your main task. (including the survey I sent)
  • Noise.
  • Cubicle “drive-bys” for gossip.
  • Interpersonal issues with coworkers.
  • Office conditions, including interior design, climate control, construction projects, sanitation, roaches, etc.
  • Nosy bosses.

Annoying Coworker

Some coworkers make it impossible to concentrate

Distractions Are Ok…Sometimes

Different offices may have their own unique problems-for instance, we don’t deal with phones that often from where I work. Obviously, some of these “distractions” are actually very important, and some more desirable than others. Creative types for instance, might find it more beneficial to be “distracted” by fun websites while an accountant may find it would it very bad for work.

Dirty Office

Poor sanitation can lead to a negative work environment. And how.

However you cut it, studies point out that it takes anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour for a worker to return to peak efficiency after an interruption from the original task.

Furthermore, other studies point out when a worker is distracted from the task at hand, they might not even return to the original task up until much later.

Of course, you don’t need any study to tell you that leaving tasks unfinished can lead to a great deal of stress.

Is Multitasking the Answer?

Technology allows us to multitask now! Surely we must be accomplishing more, even when distracted?

You may think so, but I dare you to find a published, peer-reviewed scientific study that conclusively shows multitaskers are more effective than unitaskers at the vast majority of tasks involving concentration.

Go on. You won’t find any.


Multitasking often means getting nothing done

The truth is, anything involving more than hearing music (without lyrics, since vocals in a language you understand uses up more brain power) in the background while doing something else will in an overwhelming majority of cases make you even less able to accomplish any of the tasks you are trying to do at that moment.

As New York Times correspondent Clive Thompson has pointed out “Information is no longer a scarce resource – attention is”. This gives business owners and employees plenty of food for thought.

Do you really need to call that meeting? How would you lay out your office space so that people don’t bug each other yet still be accessible? Who should be on your IM buddy lists? How often should you retrieve your e-mail? How do you even begin to fight Project ADHD?

The answers depend on the tasks you do and how much you need to do them. You will often find it impossible not to multitask or not get distracted. However, in almost all cases there are things you can do to ensure you get more done when distractions are unavoidable.

In the next part of this series, we will discuss solutions that will cut down on the effects of office distractions.

Office-Distractions – Part Two


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.