The Key To Keeping Employees Focused

Workplace distractions can sidetrack employees from doing their jobs, but managers can minimize the diversions.
The Key To Keeping Employees Focused
Marty Martin is a director and an associate professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University and author of the book Taming Disruptive Behavior. Reach him at

As managers know all too well, workday distractions are everywhere, stealing your employees’ precious time and productivity. Between new technologies that beg for people’s attention to the prevalence of shortened attention spans, everyone on your team may be more distracted today than in the past. Of course, being distracted at work creates numerous problems, from missed opportunities to strained business relationships. Therefore, you need to manage employees effectively to minimize their distractions.

First, realize there are two categories of distraction: internal and external. Internal distractions include any physiological, emotional, attitudinal, biological or physical discomfort. Examples include having an upset stomach or a headache, worrying about a personal matter, feeling overwhelmed with tasks, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, experiencing anger toward a co-worker or grieving a loss. Any of these situations can quickly take an employee’s attention away from his or her tasks.

External distractions involve other people and technology. Some examples are social media and text alerts ringing on a smartphone, email notifications popping up on a computer screen and other employees who talk loudly in the office. These seemingly innocuous items easily divert people’s attention.

The real challenge is that most employees aren’t experiencing just one or two of these distractions. They’re facing work interruptions on a daily basis.

On top of all the internal and external distractions, organizational structures have changed over the years, packing more duties and responsibilities into every job description. That means your employees today have to spread their attention thin just to complete their expected workload. With all of these factors, it’s no wonder so many people feel distracted at work.

Fortunately, most distractions can be eliminated from the workplace if you take the time to manage them. Here’s how.

Design or redesign a job from a distractibility point of view.

It’s natural for a manager to blame the employee for becoming distracted, saying things like “He’s not a team player,” “She’s not motivated” or “He doesn’t work well here.” The manager may even reprimand the individual for poor performance. But before going that route, take a good look at the job and environment to see if it’s making the employee distracted.

What are the job duties, both the ones explicitly stated in the job description and the ones that person just always seems to do? What’s the working environment like? What visual or auditory distraction triggers are present? How is the office set up? Is the lighting, the chair and the desk layout conducive to good work habits? What other factors impact the employee’s efficiency, effectiveness and performance?

If the work environment and the job are poorly designed, the talented individuals you bring in will continue to struggle, perhaps not because of their habits but due to the bad design. Therefore, before you reprimand, analyze! What you find may surprise you.

Create a distraction elimination plan.

Think back to your elementary school days. You likely had a few kids in the class who always bothered others, threw spitballs or just stared out the window for hours. What did the teacher do? She had a plan. If the kids were disruptive to the class, she’d move them up front near her. If they were window gazers, she’d position their desks so they could no longer see the window. No matter what the disruptive behavior, she knew what to do because she had a plan in mind for it.

Good managers do the same. They sit down with the distracted employee and together create a distraction elimination plan (DEP). By working together, they may decide on some physical changes in the office that can help, such as moving to a new cubicle or changing the lighting, or they may figure out strategies the employee can use to maintain focus, such as not having an email program always open or disabling smartphone alerts.

The great thing about a plan is that it provides concrete references and is used as a benchmark to gauge progress. Additionally, all organizations have risk management plans, strategic plans, operational plans and business plans, so why not also have distraction elimination plans?

Offer other resources when needed.

Sometimes, even with the manager’s help and a solid DEP in place, the employee is still distracted. In these cases, the manager has to know when to offer additional resources. If your business has an employee assistance program, you may want to consider making a recommendation to an appropriate resource or service.

If you don’t have a formal program, present the idea of additional help in a supportive and neutral fashion. You could even suggest it as a step in the DEP: “If the outlined steps in this plan don’t resolve the issue, then the employee will seek outside assistance in the form of a counselor or therapist.” The key is to help the employee find the needed resources to determine the seriousness of the distraction.


The next time you notice employees who are underperforming, don’t immediately reprimand them. Instead, take the time to determine if there’s something you or the company can do to remove the distractions from the workplace. Distractions don’t have to be a major part of the workday. You can help minimize them. Remember, the fewer distractions people have, the more productive they’ll be. 


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.