What's Distracting Your Employees at Work -- And How to Put a Stop to It

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Marco Piovesan

Some studies estimate that employees waste upwards of two hours a day on distractions such as internet surfing, text messaging, instant messaging, and playing online games. Surprisingly, blocking such applications and websites might have more of a negative effect on productivity than allowing them at certain times.

Research by Harvard Business School Professor, Marco Piovesan, raises questions about how to eliminate workplace distractions caused by technology. HRIQ speaks with Piovesan about his research, as well as his suggestions for company policies that may help to quell the distractions and increase productivity.

What are some of the most significant distractions in the workplace, and what does your area of research focus upon?

In the past (in pre-Internet days) distractions/temptations were represented by reading the newspaper, smoking a cigarette, drifting into coworkers' offices to talk about sports or hanging around the coffee machine.

But today, the biggest temptation at work is the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Youtube, Skype, and internet games are few examples of Internet temptations. Moreover, Internet is everywhere and unlike smoking or the love of coffee, Internet temptation affects everyone: men and women, young and old. We can say the the Internet is an equal opportunity distraction!

Many employees delay Internet activity to the end of the workday. What does your research suggest are the results of using willpower to delay gratification on performance?

Recent work in social psychology suggests that using willpower to resist temptations can impact negatively performance on subsequent tasks. One explanation for this is that willpower creates costly self-control problems and it consumes an individual's energy. Since energy is a limited resource, individuals after taking a willpower effort are left with little energy and they tend to become more passive in making decisions and completing tasks.

The implication is that asking people to regulate their behavior without interruption (by, say, never going online at work) may very well make them less focused and less effective. And our results seem to confirm this intuition.

Can you cite an example of how this plays out in the workplace?

The office place is filled with tempting distractions from one's work, including everything from socialization with colleagues to napping. Perhaps, as I said, the most prominent temptation is the Internet. Indeed, a widely cited survey conducted in 2005 by America Online and Salary.com ranked personal Internet use as the number one way people waste time at work. Social networking, shopping online, or spending time with personal email are indeed Internet temptations just a mouse-click away for many office employees. To encourage worker productivity, offices adopt policies prohibiting Internet use during work hours, with some even monitoring employees' Internet activities. But, is this really a good idea? Prohibiting Internet has a positive effect on workers' productivity? Our experiment aims to test exactly that.

What's the relationship between mistakes subsequent to temptation?

In our study, we asked participants to perform a simple task - watch videos of people passing balls and count the number of passes. But first they were presented with a distraction/temptation. One group of participants had a funny video come up on their screens; the rest saw a message telling them that a funny video was available if they clicked a button, but they were told not to watch it. After ten minutes, during which people in the second group could hear those in the first laughing at the video, everyone set to the task of counting the number of passes. The curious result was that those who hadn't watched the comedy video made significantly more mistakes (three times more!) than those who had. You might have thought that those who had spent the previous ten minutes laughing would become distracted and careless. Instead, it was the act of following company policy and not clicking that button that eroded people's ability to focus and concentrate.

Why is it beneficial to allow regular breaks for personal internet use?

If our results are correct, people are more productive and less distracted when they do not have to resist a temptation such as the Internet offers. Not asking them to use their willpower to resist temptations allow them to use their willpower on their work. Therefore, allowing employees a certain amount of time maybe even as often as several minutes per hour for personal Internet activity can avoid this unproductive use of willpower and make them more concentrated and productive. Willpower is, in some sense, like a muscle: overuse temporarily exhausts it. Having a time-out may have a huge effect on workers' performances.

One can be also creative about arranging these breaks. Perhaps lunch-breaks can be somewhat shortened in light of the "surf-time". Another way to think of this is as a "cigarette" or "coffee" break or, more generally, any short break from work leaving the employee free to do what she wants.

What are the practical implications that can be implemented by employers to control negative performance resulting from exposure to temptation, without hurting their bottom line?

Companies could just remove the temptation entirely and shut down access to most Web sites. There are companies that try to do this, but it creates a tyrannical work environment, and, besides, the spread of smartphones renders such a policy increasingly unenforceable. As I said, a more interesting solution would be to create "Internet breaks," allowing workers to periodically spend a few minutes online. As Oscar Wilde said, "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it." Therefore our common-sense recommendation it's actually a logical evolution of one of the great inventions of the twentieth century: the coffee break.

But let me stress that this is the first study on this issue. More research is needed. Research on connections between workplace temptations and productivity are in their very early stage, and many open questions remain. For example, with respect to the Internet, would it be optimal to allow some level of non-work activity at some points during the day? How would that sort of policy compare to eliminating the temptation entirely, say be removing the Internet? Which policy, or what other policy, would employees prefer? Our research agenda is filled with a lot of interesting questions. To find the answer we plan to run more lab studies. Moreover, we aim to study this issue in real companies with real workers. We think this is a promising topic for future research that may help us to understand the nature of human behavior but also give practical suggestions to management to make the workplace a better and more productive environment.

Interview conducted by Alexandra Guadagno, Editor for Human Resources iQ.