Are you distracted at work? Don’t blame technology.

Distraction at work is a symptom of cultural dysfunction, not a symptom of technology, as many people claim.

NIR EYAL: So when I was researching my book, Indistractable, I constantly heard of folks telling me how the workplace is this source of constant distraction—whether it's the fact that people work in open-floor-plan offices or the constant ping and ding of emails or group chat channels.

One of the tools I heard mentioned most often as people complained about the technology that keeps them tethered to the work was a product called Slack. Slack is the world's largest group chat app and so I decided to pay Slack a visit. And what I discovered when I went to visit Slack headquarters is that Slack somehow doesn't suffer from this problem of distraction. I mean, you would think if technology was the source of the problem, if Slack was causing people to get distracted, the people at Slack who use the product more than anyone on Earth should be more distracted than anyone. But that's not what I found. At six o'clock the office was empty and on nights and weekends it turns out people who work at Slack are chastised if they use the product outside of working hours. Well why is that? It's because technology is not the root cause of distraction at work. That's what I discovered in my five years of research is that distraction at work is a symptom of cultural dysfunction.

Companies that have a healthy workplace culture portray three attributes.
First, they give employees psychological safety. The ability to raise their hand, to raise concerns and say, hey, something is not working out here. Can we talk about this problem without fear of retribution, without fear that they might get fired for voicing a concern?

The second attribute of these companies with a healthy workplace culture is that they give employees a forum to talk about their concerns. So, at Slack, they actually use their own technology to give employees this forum. They have these Slack channels—one of them is called Beef Tweets where any employee can post a complaint, a concern or a comment about the company and company management will acknowledge they have seen those concerns with—get this—an emoji; an eye emoji or a checkmark emoji lets employees know that their concerns are acknowledged and being handled.

And then finally, and perhaps the most important attribute of these companies with a healthy workplace culture when it comes to distraction is that management displays what it means to become indistractable. They're fully present with their employees as opposed to being on their device during meetings. They show employees what it means to do focused work by tuning out distraction, turning off all those external triggers and not working 24/7 and perpetuating this terrible cycle of responsiveness.

So if we are to do our best work what we need to acknowledge in corporate America today is that we have to give people the time to do reflective as opposed to simply reactive work. That reacting to emails and meetings all day long doesn't give people the time to have the focus to do their best work.

So the lesson here is that technology in the workplace is not causing these problems. It is nothing but the proximal cause. The real source of the problem is a dysfunctional workplace culture where people can't talk about this problem of distraction just as they can't talk about all kinds of other problems in the workplace. But when we give employees psychological safety, a forum to talk about these issues as well as displaying for employees what it means to become indistractable, this is where we give people the opportunity to do their best work.

  • After hearing so many people blame email and Slack as causes of distraction in the workplace, Nir Eyal went to the Slack offices and discovered it to be a focus-driven office with excellent work-life boundaries. Tech isn't the problem, he concluded. The root cause of workplace distraction is cultural dysfunction.
  • Companies that have a healthy workplace culture create psychological safety for their employees to voice concerns and complaints. When issues can be resolved—without fear of punishment—employees are able to return to work rather than sit and seethe.
  • Importantly, leaders must also model indistractibility by giving undivided attention to people in meetings and not working 24/7, which Eyal describes as a "terrible" cycle of reaction. Reacting to emails and meetings all day long doesn't give people the time to be reflective—to focus and do their best work.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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