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Focused Work Hours: How Productive Are Your Employees?

As an owner, it’s likely that you’re always looking for ways to grow your business. One element that may be overlooked is helping your employees become more productive. There are several different reasons why workers may be unproductive, such as employees spending time on their phones or gossiping around the water cooler. But it’s just as likely that your team is distracted from their work by more work. This is why the concept of focus time is so important for helping increase productivity.

A study in the Harvard Business Review found that knowledge workers spend as much as 41% of their time on what they termed low-value activities. These are generally administrative tasks or meetings that could be delegated or dismissed altogether. A more recent study by RescueTime found that workers check emails or a communication tool like Slack every six minutes.

Although these activities are work-related, they’re not the work that creates value for your business. If you want to get the most from your labor costs, you need to help your team find focused time where they can concentrate uninterrupted on the task you hired them to do.

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What is focus time?

Focus time is uninterrupted time when your employees can concentrate on important tasks. In some industries, employees talk about being in the flow or in the zone, while in others this productivity time is simply called uninterrupted work.

These distraction-free stretches are especially important for knowledge workers, such as programmers and editors, who are generally working on larger projects rather than completing a regular set task or responding to customer needs. A study from the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes the average worker more than 23 minutes to get back to a task after an interruption. It’s also been found that people make more errors after being distracted, which makes any interruption a large drain on your business.

What stops your employees from being focused?

There are three main culprits when it comes to distractions in the workplace:

  • External interruptions: These are the things that come from outside that force a person’s attention away from their work. They’re usually difficult to ignore, like the ringing of a phone or a colleague standing by your desk. Emails and IM apps can also fall into this category, especially if there’s an alert when a new message arrives, or if there’s a workplace culture that encourages an immediate response.
  • Other work: These are the low-value tasks that need to be done, but take workers away from their primary work. Many of these tasks used to be done by administration workers, but some companies have eliminated these positions. This is either due to cost-saving measures or because technology makes some functions easier. This downsizing has meant that many workers now have to manage tasks such as filing or organizing travel on their own.
  • Meetings: The average employee attends 62 meetings each month, and a recent survey found that only 11% of workers think all of their meetings are productive. In addition to the time wasted sitting in meetings, many are arranged for the middle of the day. The most common meeting start time is 11am, which means workers are being pulled away from focused work and have to reestablish their concentration following the meeting.

How to help your team stay focused

The good news is that people want to be focused at work. Although there’s not much research on how time spent on focused work lines up with job satisfaction, one study found that nine out of 10 employees want greater meaning in their work. As focused work is more meaningful than the distractions of meetings and multitasking, it’s likely they’d be happier if they could find time to concentrate on important tasks.

Your employees need to take steps to find this focus time, and different strategies work better for different people. However, you can look at what you, as the business owner, can do to help your entire team find more time for productivity.

The right culture

Many employees have trouble saying no to distractions, with 35% saying they’d still attend a meeting even if they believed it wouldn’t be productive. The previously cited Harvard study found that people want to appear busy and productive, so they attend meetings and take on busy work.

If you create a culture that supports people saying no to distractions, they’re more likely to create focused time. Encourage staff to use voicemail to screen calls and tell colleagues who want to chat that they’re currently in focus time. You could even give team members “focus time” signs that alert fellow team members that they shouldn’t be disturbed.

Although email and IM communications are important ways for teams to share ideas and collaborate, they can be very distracting. Let your team know that it’s okay to only check emails once or twice a day, and reinforce the idea that IMs don’t need to be responded to immediately. You should also discuss the importance of focus time with your team, and ask how you can help them achieve uninterrupted concentration.

Regular breaks

The human brain can’t stay focused for eight hour straight. Studies on the topic of concentration come to different conclusions about the amount of time you can stay focused, but the maximum time seems to be between 60 and 90 minutes. After this length of time, it’s best to step away from the computer, stretch, have some water and come back refreshed.

Despite this, one survey found that 39% of people only occasionally, rarely or never take breaks during the workday and 22% feel guilty or judged when they do take lunch. Making it easier for your staff to take guilt-free breaks can help them find focus time when they return to work. You can do this by improving lunch rooms, discussing the benefits of regular breaks and leading by example by taking your own breaks.

On a larger scale, regular breaks completely away from work can also help staff feel refreshed. Encourage people to take their vacation days and step away from work completely while they’re away. Whether a break is 10 minutes or 10 days long, it can help your team be more productive when they’re at their desk.

Space for productivity

Open-plan offices can allow your team to communicate spontaneously and help collaboration, but they can be bad for focus. In an open-plan office, it’s easy to be distracted by other conversations and activities or even someone walking past. It can also be tempting to strike up a conversation, not necessarily about the latest project.

You may not be able to completely ditch your open-plan space, but do you have an unused meeting room that can be converted to a focus space? This can be a silent space with a closed door that allows people to focus on important tasks.

Allowing staff to work from home is another option. Studies conducted during 2020 showed that productivity increased while people were working from home, which may be due in part to fewer distractions. People who don’t expect regular interruptions at home may find that one or two days of remote working can help them concentrate fully on their projects.

Training

Many people don’t know how to manage their time effectively. Offering training in strategies such as the Pomodoro technique, time blocking and batching tasks can help your team start to develop focus time. You can also consider buying books on different techniques for staff to borrow. This can help them gain a greater understanding of the need for dedicated concentration time and how to obtain greater focus.

Better schedules

It’s long been established that people work better at different times of the day. As an employer, you can help your team achieve success by letting them work when they have the most energy and focus. Some people focus best in the early morning, while others find after lunch is the best time for concentration. If you give your employees the flexibility to set their own schedules, they’ll be better able to achieve focus.

You can also consider how adjusting the general schedule of your workplace can help your staff. The simplest schedule tweak that increases focus is limiting meetings. If possible, have no-meeting days in your office. This gives people entire days where they can focus on important work. Alternatively, you can schedule meetings either at the start or end of the workday when they don’t interrupt your team’s focus time. When you can’t avoid meetings, make sure they’re organized and effective.

More help

Encourage your staff to delegate their low-value tasks. If there’s no one for them to delegate to, consider hiring someone to take over admin tasks. The math shows this is a logical step. If someone comes in one or two days a week to manage filing, data entry, travel booking and other similar tasks, it will allow your team to concentrate on the tasks that generate profit for your company. As a bonus, it’s likely that an administrative assistant will cost far less than you’re currently paying your team to do the same work.

Use technology

Different types of technology can offer your employees ways to block out distractions. Some are as simple as noise-canceling headphones to block out surrounding conversations. Others, such as employee monitoring software, are more complex.

Employee monitoring software often comes with tools that help staff stay focused. This can include trackers that show staff where they’re spending their time, and blockers that can stop them from visiting certain websites when they’re in focus mode.

The danger from this software is eroding trust if your team feels like you’re spying on them. A survey by Airtasker found that 56% of office employees found ways to avoid working when their screen or mouse time was tracked. If you do choose to utilize this sort of software, make sure your employees understand that it’s a tool for helping their focus and time management, not a way for you to micromanage their time.

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