Productivity and the cost of distraction

'Distract and overwhelm' is the new productive norm. Kate Boorer outlines what impact this is having on workplace productivity - and what can be done to improve the situation.

'Distract and overwhelm' is the new productive norm. Kate Boorer outlines what impact this is having on workplace productivity - and what can be done to improve the situation.

We see it happen every day, in fact most of us experience it every minute - an email that requires a fast response, a quick call to a colleague, the invitation to grab a cup of coffee or chat on instant messenger to someone sitting next to us. Distractions in the workplace are everywhere and our ability to resist temptation and stay focused has been greatly compromised by the fact that now, instead of five potential distractions an hour, there are likely to be 50.

We operate today in a vastly different world than even just five short years ago. The rate of information exchange, the pace of decision-making and the expectations on employees has grown exponentially as has how we do business across multiple countries and time zones. With it have come new challenges for organisations and employees regarding how to be productive amongst all the ‘noise’ - both literal and metaphoric. As a result, distraction and overwhelm is the new productive ‘norm’.

Observing this tension of ‘busy’ and its impact on clients in the workplace, my colleague Dr Lucia Kelleher and I decided to conduct some research to explore the nature of distraction in the workplace and its impact on workplace productivity. The findings outlined in the 2013 Workplace Productivity Report* revealed that 55% of people are frequently distracted throughout the workday with only 33% of those frequently distracted able to effectively get on with work and disregard distractions.

What does this look like in your organisation? 

  • 4 in 10 employees are frequently distracted and unable to disregard distractions and get on with the job

How does this translate to productivity?

Self-assessed respondents of the survey revealed that there periods throughout the week where they were completely unproductive, and alarmingly: 

  • 25% of people were completely unproductive 7 or more hours a week
  • 22% of people were completely unproductive 5 - 6 hours a week

On average – this represented approximately 11% of people costs or 2.3 days lost per employee per working month.

What are the implications on business? There is not an organisation in the world that would not like more budget to employ staff or more time to get more done and it’s not just the organisations that are being negatively impacted; the result of this constant distraction and inability to make progress has a significant impact on employees both personally and professionally.

The solution is not working harder, time management training or simply doing nothing as a reaction to this ‘silent or invisible’ pandemic of poor productivity. Our working environment has changed and the volume of information and demands on employees will not slow down. We cannot control or change this environment and the reality is that the pace of this will only speed up.

20% of employees have adapted their operating system and developed strategies to support performance in this environment and these employees are thriving. Key to this transition is self- awareness and ultimately developing the skills to self-regulate around distractions; an example being to switch off email alerts or completely turn off emails for chunks of time to allow for productive hours to flow.

The remaining 80% of employees have the expectation that the environment will slow down or are trying to keep up whilst feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Like a computer that is running incredibly slow due to massive load and limited ‘memory’, these people are frustrated both at their own capability to get things done (i.e. the computer) and the increasing demands and expectations.

It’s time to upgrade the software that runs the computers we call our brains. It is not about providing additional capacity such as more time, more people or more skills. It is about applying new strategies and a new level of understanding of how our brains can engage with this new environment so that employees can not only survive but also thrive. And surely this is a win/win solution for all organisations.

*A copy of the 2013 Workplace Productivity Report is available here


About the author

Kate Boorer is a speaker, consultant and mentor on building Sustainable High Performance in the Workplace. She is the client solutions leader for Employerbility and can be contacted for bookings and advice at or [email protected]


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