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Handling Digital Distractions at Work

Stocksy_phones_meetingsSay you’re in a meeting, just about to reveal details of a plan you’ve been sweating over for months, but one of the key players in the room keeps messing with his smartphone. You really want to think that he’s taking notes – but is he? Or is he emailing, texting, tweeting … playing Candy Crush?

Digital distractions can be a huge problem in collaborative meetings.

A few years ago, harmon.ie, a provider of Microsoft collaboration tools, surveyed 1,140 workers in the United Kingdom and found that almost half of the respondents were glued to their digital devices during meetings, sending instant messages, responding to texts, listening to voicemails and checking emails. In virtual meetings and webcasts, the figure jumped to 70 percent.

The Effects of Multitasking

We all have times when we need to be up-to-the-minute on communications, whether business or personal. And some professions have a need to be more connected than others. Doctors, for example, started wearing pagers 30 years ago so they could go about their day but still know the moment they were needed somewhere else.

Sometimes it’s anxiety about being out of the loop that makes us focus more on electronics than the meeting at hand. And, lastly, more than a few of us are trying to juggle so many tasks and projects that a minute of catch-up time – even if it comes at the expense of someone else’s presentation – doesn’t seem like too much to ask, right?

The problem is that all of this digital multitasking isn’t necessarily improving our productivity. Just this month, the Harvard Business Review noted that distractions cost the economy $997 billion annually, citing research by the late Clifford Nass and colleagues at Stanford University that found people who regularly juggle several streams of content “do not pay attention, memorize or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one task at a time.”

Minimizing Digital Distractions

So how do you curb digital distractions in meetings? The same harmon.ie survey found that two-thirds of businesses have adopted strategies to reduce the problem.

Twitter and Facebook are off-limits on some work networks, although this doesn’t address smartphones that are connecting outside of the network. Other organizations have banned mobile devices during meetings – and even laptops, in some cases, unless they’re needed for a presentation.

As an example, eBay is reporting improved meeting efficiency with its new policy that bans mobile devices during certain team meetings.

Understanding why workers are digitally distracted during meetings can help land on solutions that are right for your workplace.

Are employees spending meeting time muddling through overstuffed email inboxes? (Inc. magazine reported that CEOs, for example, can receive 200-300 emails per day.) Try limiting the overall company use of internal email and challenge workers to meet face-to-face or use the telephone to improve efficiency.

Additional options include collaboration tools like Yammer or Zoho, where conversations are fast and informal and stay with the subject rather than in an overflowing inbox. Just be sure the one you choose has a “Do Not Disturb” mode that employees select during meetings.

Some companies take another approach by offering specific training. From Intel to Aetna, organizations are taking a more holistic approach to managing digital distractions throughout the workplace. TechTarget had this to say about Intel’s program:

"Two years ago, [Intel] rolled out a program to help colleagues manage the digital barrage that is part and parcel of every workday: hundreds upon hundreds of emails per day, instant messages that must be attended to. Nowhere in the Intel program, however, are there any lessons in improving organizational or multitasking skills. Instead, Intel's mindful awareness program, as it's called, is designed to develop things like better focus, emotional intelligence and stress management."

The solutions that work best will almost always embrace digital devices as the valuable tools that they are, while also helping manage their potential to overwhelm our attention spans.

We all want the flexibility to work wherever and whenever we want, and portable devices allow us to do that. But it just so happens that we also work a little more efficiently if we can focus on one topic at a time.

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