The modern workplace is full of distractions. We fend off emails—121 a day, according to a recent global study (does that sound low to anyone?)—and attack whichever task lands in front of us, even if we know it’s not the most important thing on our to-do list, just to make it go away.
As a manager, you’ve probably seen how this way of working can compromise your team’s ability to focus. Distractions aren’t just an annoyance—they have direct consequences on your team’s performance. When we can’t focus, we lose sight of what really matters and we’re less able to make the thoughtful decisions that lead to success and meaningful growth.
Helping your team focus begins with taking a look your own habits and leadership style. So many of the distractions that can derail productivity are built-in features of our workplaces, but ask yourself, is there anything you’re doing—like constantly interrupting, for instance, or peppering your direct reports with instant messages that aren’t urgent—that makes it harder for your team to concentrate on what matters?
As a manager, you have an opportunity to set standards and define success for your team. So think carefully about which behaviors you reward and encourage. Just as we shouldn’t celebrate those who go around in a zombie-like state of sleep deprivation, we shouldn’t reward those who take on dozens of projects at once but under-deliver on each of them. Or respond to every email within minutes but consistently miss big deadlines. As a manager, it’s up to you to send a message to your team that focusing and investing time and attention in important projects is what’s valued.
When you help your direct reports focus, it’s not just productivity that gets a boost— it’s overall engagement. According to a 2015 Gallup survey of manager-led teams in 195 countries, at least two-thirds of the employees who felt strongly that their managers helped them set goals and priorities reported being engaged in their work.
Here are a few ways you can help your team members reduce distraction and increase focus:
1. Create conditions that help employees maximize their focus
We often underestimate the importance of the conditions and design of our workplaces. But it’s no surprise that a lively, open office might make it difficult for some people to focus. If you’re in an office that includes quiet spaces or conference rooms, encourage people to take advantage. If not, ask your team whether an office-wide “quiet hour” would be helpful, or encourage them to bring headphones to the office for when they really need to focus.
2. Start a conversation about workplace distraction
You don’t need to guess what’s distracting your direct reports or hampering their ability to focus. Just ask them directly. You may learn something you never would have expected, and you’ll be in a much better position to institute changes that can boost everyone’s performance and create a more satisfying work environment.
3. Do a tech audit
You can’t talk about focus and distraction without including the tech tools and devices we rely on to do our work. We have more ways than ever to communicate electronically, but sometimes we bring in new tools just because they’re new and shiny, without doing a cost-benefit analysis for our focus and productivity. Ask your direct reports about the tools you use as a team, and if there’s consensus that something isn’t adding value, drop it, or consider establishing boundaries like “do not disturb” hours.